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What Illegal Four-Wheeling Does To Public Lands

Courtney Flatt

This time of year, back roads are getting muddy. This is when enforcement officers start to worry about people driving their cars illegally on public lands – through the mud. Spinning tires and heavy rigs can destroy habitat. It’s also costly to repair the damage.

“Drivers, are you ready?”

They call it mudding. Mud is everywhere. Liquid brown splashes up for feet high. Jeep, after truck, after four-wheeler plunges into a mud bog in Ethel, Washington. The vehicles race through the mud to see how far they can go.

Most don’t make it to the end. Even the announcer notices.

“Our pits aren’t that easy this year.”

It’s a challenge these drivers are ready to tackle.

Steve Russell has been running this mudding event in Western Washington for 20 years. Here, drivers are allowed to run through a course of mud. Russell says it keeps drivers off sensitive landscapes elsewhere in the state.

Russell: “And it’d not on wetlands, or anything like that. It’s a great place for people to come and have a good time with their rigs and not worry about the environment.”

But there are areas where it’s illegal to run tires through mud. This time of year, the rain and snow start to soften the ground.

Illegal mudding can destroy habitat. Tires rip through creeks and crush the brush that many animals call home.

It’s these places that concern Richard Mann. He’s an enforcement officer for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Credit Courtney Flatt / Earthfix
Every year, Steve Russell hosts mud bogging events to try to give mudders a place to go, and help keep the sport to designated areas.

The county road that weaves through central Washington’s Wenas Wildlife Area is not an easy haul.

Mann’s truck rattles and creaks with the bumps in the road.

Mann: “Hold tight. A lot our roads in our wildlife area are not your normal gravel county road.”

On these roads the fun is legal for wheelers, jeeps, and ATVs.

Wandering off the roads and onto fields and meadows are where vehicles can degrade habitat.

Mann: “People say, ‘Well, it’s only a small area.’ But you start magnifying that up across the landscape, and a few acres here, a few acres there start adding up pretty quick.”

Mann pulls up to one area not too far from Yakima. It’s known to locals as frog ponds.

Mann: “It seems to get worse each year.”

Five mud puddles have cropped up since Mann began patrolling the Yakima Valley.

It’s the damage from the tires that causes problems for ground-nesting birds that are supposed to be protected in this wildlife area.

The department has tried placing large rocks in the ponds to prevent illegal mudding. It doesn’t always work.

Mann: “There’s a vehicle track right there between the rocks. Somebody had to go.”

It’s not that off road drivers are intentionally disturbing the habitat.

Mann: “Some of it’s just plain not thinking, at times, I believe.”

In a remote part of the wildlife area, some vehicles have started traversing a newly repaired spring. The department spent about $400,000 to fix damage caused by illegal mudders.

Mann: “As we get damage, and it continues or it expands, we end up – in a lot of cases – closing areas out. At some point, budgets won’t handle repairs, so.”

That’s one reason Steve Russell has hosted so many mudding events. He hopes to keep drivers where they’re allowed to be to prevent damage to habitat and public lands.

Russell: “We like to raise money to take care of the trails and maintain the trails for people to go wheeling – go to a place that’s designated.”

One way to know where you can drive your rig: look for signs marked with green dots. Just stay on the road.