Off-roaders not stuck on paying for OHV decals
Leonard and Bobbi Driscoll lurch uncomfortably as they slowly navigate their ATVs through the rough, heavily trafficked trails of Harquahala Mountain, about 90 miles west of Phoenix.
"It's those 4-by-4 trucks. They tear everything up so we have a rougher ride each time," Leonard Driscoll shouts as his ATV's motor heaves the vehicle over a particularly bad rut.
The Driscolls have visited popular OHV areas around the state at least twice a week since they retired here from Oregon last year.
But they haven't purchased the annual $25 off-highway vehicle decals required to ride on state land under a law that took effect in 2009 – and they aren't alone.
A Cronkite News Service review found that owners of 110,141 of the estimated 400,000 OHVs in Arizona purchased decals in 2010, down from 126,329 in 2009.
The stated goal of the decal program was safeguarding open spaces from OHV damage by providing rider education, adding law enforcement and funding trail projects taken on by state and federal agencies.
Leonard Driscoll said he won't purchase a sticker because he doesn't like how state agencies use the money and doesn't feel obligated to fund programs that he says don't benefit riders.
"We'll probably have to buy them eventually, but it's a rip-off of money," he said. "This is public land. It belongs to everyone. Why should you have to buy a decal to ride your vehicle up here?"
Thirty percent of money raised by the decals goes to the Highway Users Revenue Fund, which distributes the money to cities, towns and the State Highway Fund. The rest goes to the Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Fund administered by Arizona State Parks, with 60 percent going to State Parks, 35 percent going to the Arizona Game and Fish Department and 5 percent going to the Arizona State Land Department.
Supporters of the program hoped decals would raise $4 million to $6 million. During fiscal 2010, $1.6 million was distributed through the recreation fund.
Jim Harken, a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said funding from the decal program does benefit riders and that agencies need to find a better way of letting people know where the money goes.
Decals have already financed seven more Game and Fish enforcement officers, he said, and another two officers will be hired in 2012 to help discourage vandals and ensure rider safety.
But education, not enforcement, will ultimately bring compliance numbers up, he said.
"We've found in enforcement around the Phoenix and Tucson areas that we're seeing a lot of good compliance in those areas," Harken said. "The focus now is to educate people in more rural areas."
Bob Baldwin, the recreational trails grants coordinator with Arizona State Parks, said several educational programs already operate around the state, including the Bureau of Land Management's Ambassador Program, which puts volunteers out on trails to help riders. In the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, a "Kids In The Wood" program focuses on teenagers who use OHVs for work and recreation, he added.
"Compliance is key," Baldwin said. "People need to realize that it's like a hunting license or a fishing license. It's a fee to cover some of the costs of your recreation."
Jeff Gursh, director of education, grants and agreements for the Arizona OHV Coalition, said anyone who rides on OHV trails has seen the benefits of the decal money, including restrooms and parking areas, new maps, trail repairs and dust abatement.
"That money allowed us to go back in and repair the trails so people could use them," he said. "Seeing that the fund money has only been available for about a year, I think we're doing pretty well."
Gursh said compliance with the decal law is higher than the numbers indicate because many owners are choosing to park their vehicles until the economy improves.
"They're not using their ATVs, so they're not buying the decals," he said.
Baldwin said concern at State Parks over the possibility of a budget sweep led the agency to expand lobbying efforts to preserve the OHV decal money. If lawmakers decide to take benefits away from paying riders, decal compliance would probably fall, he said.
"The money does benefit the user in the end," Baldwin said. "It's not going off to pay school taxes or anything like that – at least for now."
This story was updated to correct spelling errors and add details about how funds raised from decal sales are used.