Plan your outdoor trip in advance to avoid conflicts on Idaho’s public lands

With a dramatic rise in recreation on public lands, agency officials are seeing more litter, terrain damage, human-caused fires and violence against livestock.

October 13, 2021 4:02 am
Photo of a Utility Terrain Vehicle, or UTV

Utility Terrain Vehicles, also known as UTVs or side by sides, are a popular way to see the Idaho backcountry. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

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By all accounts, the number of people playing outdoors in Idaho has been growing rapidly in recent years as record numbers of people move here or vacation here.

Visits to Idaho’s public lands are increasing, and that’s led to an increase in litter, trigger trash, trespassing, resource damage and human-caused wildfires.

“We’ve seen a big influx of motorized users everywhere,” says Kent Oliver, president of the Magic Valley ATV Riders. “And it seems like the big side-by-sides are the biggest influx we’ve seen.”

The Indian Springs recreation area, located in the foothills of Twin Falls and Kimberly, is managed by the Bureau of Land Management for multiple use.

“It’s open to everything,” says Ken Crane, BLM Burley Field Manager. “UTVs and ATVs jump off here and ride into the forest. We’ve got 40 miles of singletrack trail here open to motorbikes, mountain bikes, equestrian is growing here, and hiking, and people going outside.”

There’s also a target-shooting area at Indian Springs, livestock grazing, and it’s critical mule deer winter range and priority sage grouse habitat.

In a place with so many different uses going on in the same place, it’s imperative for all users to show respect for others, while also taking care to avoid conflicts with other groups or cause damage to the land, officials said.

“Doesn’t matter if you’re an ATV rider, a bicycle rider, or a cattleman with livestock, you’re all different users of this ground. You just need to get along,” Brown says. “Know the rules. Know the etiquette. Know what you’re supposed to do and it’s easier to get along with people.”

Photo of two people mountain biking in Idaho foothills near Sun Valley
Mountain biking is another popular outdoor pursuit in Idaho. (Courtesy of Visit Sun Valley, via Life on the Range)

A big part of getting along is taking the time to plan your trip in advance, research where you can go on approved trails, and plan a route that follows public roads to your destination, officials said.

“So that’s one of the biggest conflicts we’re having,” Crane says. “Especially with the new influx of people coming in. They really don’t understand. They just see all of this open range, and it all looks the same, a fence is a fence, a gate’s a gate, and it’s like it’s all ready to go.

“So you need to understand where you’re at,” he says, referring to knowing whose land you’re on, and that you’re following public roads and trails to your destination.

It’s crucial to stay on designated public roads and trails, Oliver says.

Photo of the ruts and erosion caused by UTVs or trucks going off designated trails
4WD truck or UTV creates ruts and erosion by climbing a mountain where no trail existed previously. The importance of staying on designated trails is well-known by existing OHV riders, but Idaho’s public agencies have been seeing an increase in illegal high-marking activity lately. (Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management, via Life on the Range)

“The rule is if it’s a designated road, you stay on the road. You do not make user-made roads. You do not cut across and make your own road,” he says. “We have to be stewards of the land regardless of what kind of user you are.”

Concerns about recreation/access issues have become top of mind for the Idaho Rangeland Conservation Partnership, a diverse group of people who care about the land and encourage responsible use by all user groups.

The Idaho Rangeland Conservation Partnership formed in 2018 to bring recreation and conservation groups together with ranchers and state and federal agency officials to share ideas in a safe, non-judgmental setting about land stewardship, wildlife and multiple use management.

Common concerns such as preventing human-caused fires, packing out garbage, preventing private land trespass, showing respect for all user groups and preserving native sage-steppe habitat for wildlife and livestock grazing are all crucial issues that IRCP participants care about, officials said.

IRCP has held multiple panel discussions on recreation-access issues to air concerns and search for solutions.

Landowner Tom Page has been engaged in IRCP recreation-access discussions, along with Ken Crane, Kent Oliver and Lt. Brown.

“With a greater diversity of users, you can resolve issues around multiple use, recreation access, good behavior on public lands, reduce wildfire risk, weed spread, then again you get a chance to meet people from other walks of life, and that helps engender more civil discussions,” Page says.

In the video at the end of this column, experts share a number of tips and trip-planning resources to promote good stewardship of Idaho’s rangelands.

Know where to go – before you go

Issues arising in the Indian Springs recreation area and BLM lands nearby are emblematic of natural resource concerns being observed in Idaho statewide.

Photo of Brenda Richards, coordinator of the Idaho Rangeland Conservation Partnership, leading a discussion at a recent meeting
Brenda Richards, coordinator of the Idaho Rangeland Conservation Partnership, leads a discussion at a recent meeting. More than 150 people from diverse backgrounds — from ranchers to conservation groups, recreation interests and natural resources agency professionals — have been participating in discussions about finding common ground on a host of issues. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

For example, there are many areas with mixed land ownership and a broad mix of recreation uses where people need to do their homework before they go.

People who purchase new motorized trail machines need to research what trails are open to them, officials said. Experts recommend doing research on large-format paper maps, the Internet, and mobile apps like OnX that show land ownership.

Stay on designated roads and trails

“Just look right here, you’ve got a road that comes up, to an area that stops. But yet, it’s been forced up the mountainside. It’s user-made. It’s not a sanctioned road on the BLM lands we’re standing on,” Oliver says.

Photo: A landowner who lives near the turnoff to Jump Creek Falls posts eye-catching signage to let people know it’s not the way to the falls.
A landowner who lives near the turnoff to Jump Creek Falls posts eye-catching signage to let people know it’s not the way to the falls. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

Riding clubs like the Magic Valley ATV Riders were formed years ago to help motorized users understand the rules and go on club rides to learn about the best trails to enjoy. Riding off-trail can give all motorized users a black eye, Oliver says.

“Public lands are for everybody,” he notes. “It’s not my land, it’s our land. If we don’t respect our land, we’re going to lose access in a lot of areas.”

There are many trails for motorized users to enjoy in the Magic Valley, and thousands of miles of trails statewide. People just need to learn the ropes about what trails are suitable for them.

Singletrack trails, for example, are for hiking, biking, trail-running, motorbikes and horseback riders. Fifty-inch-wide motorized trails are specifically for ATVs and narrow side-by-sides like Polaris Razors.

Jeep trails and dirt roads are open to the wider Utility Terrain Vehicles, known as UTVs or side by sides.

Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs), developed by the U.S. Forest Service, explain what trails and roads are open to each use. The maps are available at all national forest offices and online.

“MVUM’s tell you what trails you can operate a motor vehicle on, it tells you if the trail is singletrack only, it’ll tell you if that trail is 50-inch or more, it’ll tell you if it’s a jeep trail or if it’s open to all vehicles,” Oliver says.

Photo: ock barriers or steel posts at trailheads alert riders that 50-inch ATV trails are meant for only 50-inch trail machines – narrow side by sides and ATVs.
Rock barriers or steel posts at trailheads alert riders that 50-inch ATV trails are meant for only 50-inch trail machines – narrow side by sides and ATVs. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

“The MVUM is the bible for the forest.”

It’s imperative that people do not try to ride a larger trail machine on a 50-inch trail, he says. Rock or steel post barriers at trailheads  remind users that the trails are made for ATVs or 50-inch side-by-sides.

“When people start going around them, or over the top of them, now they’re in violation, quite frankly, because they’re riding illegally with a wider than 50-inch machine, they’re off trail, secondly, plus they’re causing an environmental problem by tearing up the side of a hill, which causes erosion,” Oliver explains.

Riding in a responsible way is crucial. Here’s the message from the Idaho “Stay on Trails” campaign:  “Please, do your part, protect Idaho’s backcountry, respect other riders, stay on the trail and follow trail rules.”

Mixed land ownership can create navigation challenges

Planning your route ahead of time can help navigate through areas with mixed land ownership.

Big-picture hard-copy maps show where people will encounter private lands (shown in white on BLM or Forest Service maps) on their way to public lands.

A map of mixed land ownership in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area
Mixed land ownership area on a Sawtooth National Recreation Area Forest Service map shows gold areas as BLM lands, white as private lands, green as Forest Service lands. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

For example, at the northern gateway to Rock Creek Ranch, Tom Page shows on a big-picture map that multiple land ownership is at play. “You can see this one little loop touches on three ownerships.”

Big-picture maps also help users plan their route to their destination, following public access roads.

“That’s where you need the big picture. You need to figure you where you want to go,” Oliver says.

“It’s important to do your homework so we can continue to have sort of a civil use of public and private lands which as you know in the West is very big stuff,” Page explains. “Knowing where to go and knowing how to act responsibly is only going to increase their credibility when you want to talk to those folks about access or management.”

Online resources like the Idaho Trails interactive statewide map, sponsored by the Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation, is a great source for trip-planning.

Click on a trail, and the online trails map tells you what types of uses are allowed on the trail, season of use, trail length, and more.

Photo of hunters with a bull elk in the Pahsimeroi Mountains
Tom Page, left, and hunting partner Kahle Becker with a nice bull elk in the Pahsimeroi Mountains. A landowner, trail-runner and conservation professional, Page is active with IRCP. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

Most backcountry areas in Idaho are out of cell range, so be sure you are using a satellite-based system that works without cell service. Or, download key maps for off-line use before you go.When you’re navigating your ride in the field, use a GPS or online apps like OnX to navigate challenging areas with mixed land ownership that might not be well-marked.

“The technology today is just amazing,” adds Brown. “You need to have the resources with you for the area you’re going to be riding in. Know if you’re on public, know if you’re on private, talk to landowners, get permission to be on their place.”

If private lands are posted “No Trespassing” with signs and orange paint, do not trespass. Even if private lands are not marked, people are responsible for knowing where they are and sticking to public routes when traveling through areas with mixed ownership.

Responsible shooting on public lands

Always make sure you have a proper backstop when you’re out target-shooting.

The Indian Springs area has a gulch with a small backstop where people engage in target shooting.

Photo of shell and bullet casings on the ground
Target-shooters are encouraged to pick up their shells and bullet casings after they’ve finished their shooting activities. Leave it nice for the next group, please. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

“Shoot safely. That’s one of our biggest issues here,” Crane says. “We have mountain bikers, horseback riders, UTV riders, all around, so it’s really critical to know where your backstop is, and that you have a safe backstop.”

Bullets striking rocks can cause sparks and ignite a wildfire, too.

“Here right behind us are evidence of two fire starts from shooting and target practice. Last year, this hillside behind us burned, and then there’s another fire scar behind, and that was bullets starting fire,” Crane notes.

A Bellevue man shooting at an exploding target started a major wildfire in the Pioneer Mountains in 2018. Shooting at exploding targets is illegal on public land. The man was cited for the violation.

“Started a big fire that burned some really good habitat for multiple wildlife species, and cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in trying to repair it,” Crane explains.

Please remember to pick up your used shells and bullet casings when target shooting on public lands.

“If you take a target and shoot it, then take it home with you,” he says. “Clean up the empty casings, and shells where you’re shooting. It helps preserve the area, and makes the next group coming out  enjoy the area better.”

Show respect for livestock 

When you’re recreating on multiple-use grazing lands, known as Rangelands, you are likely to see cattle or sheep grazing as you pass by.

Photo showing cattle killed off the side of a road
Cattle killed off the side of a road. An increase in incidents of people shooting livestock and mutilating cattle has been occurring in the area. (Courtesy of Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office, via Life on the Range)

Make sure you treat livestock with respect, officials said.

Ranchers have permits to graze livestock on public rangelands. They pay grazing fees to the state and federal government for the privilege of doing so.

“We’ve had several cases this year where livestock have been shot, mutilated, left to rot, shot right off the roadways, it’s a huge disrespect for another user of this ground,” Brown says, adding that shooting livestock or causing damage to livestock facilities is against the law.

Most people know it’s important to leave the livestock alone and yield to them on roads and trails.

“It’s not just the livelihood that they’re putting in perspective, it’s also the management of the resources on the land,” Oliver says. “Grazing an area, you can help reduce the possibility of these mega fires that we’ve had.”

Ultimately, if everyone shows respect for others, we can care for and share public rangelands for decades to come, officials said.

“The biggest message that I’d like to get out to people is it doesn’t matter if you’re horseback, you’re hiking, you’re on a motorcycle and ATV, be a good steward of the land,” Brown says.

Follow the rules and enjoy your outdoor experience, Page says.

“Certainly as a recreation users, if you want to have good relationships with private landowners or land management agencies, whatever your use is, if you want those uses to continue, anyone who’s pretty smart about it is going to play by the rules,” he says. “And encourage others in their user group to do the same thing.”

Photo of a man hiking with his son in the Idaho wilderness in springtime
Tom Page goes for a spring hike with his son. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

Oliver encourages trail riders to join clubs, go on trail rides and learn the country.

“I really want people to understand that we are working toward a goal for all of us to come out and recreate,” he says. “This is our public land, let’s keep it pristine and enjoyable for everybody.”

The Idaho Rangeland Conservation Partnership will continue to have an open dialogue about recreation/access issues today and in the future.

For more information, please see our Recreation Access brochure with 10 tips for a Safe and Enjoyable outdoor adventure.

In addition, go to the IRCP web site to learn about future discussions about this topic.

Let’s all work together to care for and share our public lands for generations to come.

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Steve Stuebner
Steve Stuebner

Steve Stuebner is the writer and producer of Life on the Range, a public education project sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.