They call it “mudding” or “mud bogging.” I’ve never done it, but they tell me it’s fun.
Spinning the wheels of off-road vehicles through mud holes and throwing muck in all directions is apparently a popular form of entertainment, for some.
But the damage left from all that fun didn’t entertain me at all during a recent grouse-hunting trip through a beautiful patch of U.S. Forest Service land in the south-central Black Hills.
It was the first day of the South Dakota grouse season. And my wife, Mary, and I were up in the aspen and birch with our springer spaniel, Rosie, hunting for ruffed grouse.
Well, Rosie and I were hunting. Mary was along for the hike, and the scenery — both of which were diminished when we walked up on the first deeply rutted patch of public ground that had been ripped up by off-road riders on motorized vehicles.
It was a mess, both on the trail and in the adjoining shrubs, woods and understory, where more damage was clear. And it was just the first of several muddy, torn-up messes we would encounter on a stretch of trail and adjoining land a mile or so beyond a can’t-miss Forest Service sign that reads: “Closed to all motorized vehicles.”
Below that on the sign is an explanation: “To protect wildlife habitat area.”
It’s wildlife habitat that’s important to elk and deer and other species, including the ruffed grouse we were pursuing.
Pretty simple sign. Pretty clear. And really important.
But it was ignored by the unethical riders who roared past it to assaulted the land. Our land. The public’s land.
I know, it’s a minority of riders. But it’s a minority that does damage far beyond its numbers. And it’s the kind of stuff that happens all the time.
This year, though, this very wet year, it’s happening more than usual. And U.S. Forest Service officials are struggling to contain the lawbreaking and control the damage in order to protect the natural resources.
“We shut down a lot of trails and roads this summer. And some have stayed closed the entire summer just because the mud and damage that happened early,” says Black Hills National Forest public affairs officer Scott Jacobson. “It’s been an odd year, with all the moisture and all the riders out there. When you get a really wet year and 20,000 riders with motorized permits, you’re going to get more of this.”
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Mudding and mud-bogging is fine, in its place. But its place is not on trails and roads in the national forest, especially those marked as off-limits to motorized vehicles.
“That’s enjoyable for people, the mudding,” Jacobson said. “They come out and look for those places to ride through. And our educational effort tries to tell them, ‘Well, it might be fun but it’s causing resource damage and it's costing us time and resources to repair.”
Jacobson and other staffers are working on an educational video that will be aimed at reducing harmful mudding and mud-bogging on public ground. Along with education, the Forest Service has increased law enforcement, adding five seasonal rangers to work the motorized trail system this year. Next year, the positions will be permanent.
Some of the reactions by the people the rangers ticketed have been disheartening.
“One group that was confronted basically said ‘Well, that’s just the price of coming here and having our recreation,’” Jacobson said. “They said they’d just split up the fines some of them had received among the whole group.”
Nice attitude, huh?
But Jacobson expects a much more responsible reaction from the vast majority of off-road riders who do things right. They follow the rules and care about the land. Off-road riding groups are doing good work to police their ranks and encourage responsible use of trails in the forest, Jacobson said.
Still, it will take a bigger public-information effort to confront the problem.
“We’re trying to get the word out to people on the need to respect the resource, to help us take care of it,” Jacobson said. “If you run into mud we’d urge you to turn and go back. If you really have to go through it, go really slow to limit the damage.”
I’d urge them to go back. Period. Find a different place to ride until that one dries out.
This might be a year, and maybe next year, too, when people who like to ride but also love the Black Hills will simply have to sacrifice a bit on how far they can ride and where they can go.
I think the land and the wildlife are worth it. I hope they think so, too.