ENNIS, Mont. — On almost any given day, Jonathan Klein can find evidence of illegal off-highway vehicle use in the mountains of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest around Ennis.
But this day is more encouraging.
High up, near the top of a lonely ridge in the Tobacco Root Mountains, Klein, a recreation specialist for the forest, and ATV ranger David DeSimone spy an ATV left just yards away from a Forest Service sign indicating the area behind it is closed to motorized travel.
There's no one around for miles and it would have been a simple thing to continue up the road to the top of the ridge. On almost any other day, no one would have been the wiser.
But these riders paid attention to the signs and stopped their machine. A closer look revealed the vehicle was both licensed and complete with the accessories needed to make it street legal.
"This is what we like to see happen," said Klein as he climbed off his ATV and started walking up toward the ridge.
A few minutes later, the men came across John and Judy Hochmuht of Livingston, preparing to take a photo of themselves in front of the craggy peaks and mountain lakes that fill the background.
"There ought to be a good guy ticket," Klein told the Hochmuhts after introducing himself. "If everyone was like you, there would be no problem at all. It just gladdens my heart."
The Hochmuhts said they've been coming up to this area for the last 25 years. Recently, they traded in their motorcycles for an ATV.
"We're ridge runners," said John Hochmuht. "We just love being able to get up to areas like this."
"We appreciate being able to still get up here," Judy Hochmuht agreed. "Without having an open road, we wouldn't be able to do that."
But not everyone bothered to stop at the sign down below. On a nearby ridge a pair of ATV tracks wind their way up and over the top. Klein shook his head.
"That's just what we're trying to stop," Klein said. "That track probably started with one or two ATVs. Other people probably saw the track and followed it up the hill. In the thin soils that we have here, that track will probably be there forever, just like the old wagon wheel tracks that you can still see in some parts of the country."
Klein and other Forest Service officials are hoping that education might stem a rash of illegal off-highway use on federal lands. To help make that happen, the Forest Service and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks have teamed up to hire a pair of ATV rangers in the Madison ranger district of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest.
This summer was the second year of a $28,000 grant from the FWP to help pay for the rangers who spend their time talking to all the ATV users they find using Forest Service roads and trails about their responsibility to the sport of motorized recreation. They also keep their eyes open for noxious weeds and put up signs to help people stay on the right side of the law.
"The rangers' emphasis is on education," said Klein. "Enforcement has its place, but we all know that we'll never be able to protect the resource through enforcement. It's too large, there's too many of them, and there are too few of us."
"We recognize that the use of ATVs is a legitimate use of the forest," said Klein. "It is troubling when we continue to see people using them illegally. The number of incidents that we are recording doesn't reflect favorably upon the sport of motorized recreation."
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said recently that the agency has identified four major threats to the national forest system. They are fire and fuels; unwanted invasive species; loss of open space; and the impacts of unmanaged recreation, particularly the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles.
"OHVs are a great way to experience the outdoors, and only a tiny fraction of the users leave lasting traces by going cross-country," Bosworth told members of the Izaak Walton League in Pierre, S.D., in July. "But the number of OHV users has just exploded in recent years. Even a tiny percentage of impact from all those millions of OHV users is still a lot of impact."
Bosworth said the impacts come in the form of hundreds of miles of unauthorized roads and trails due to repeated cross-country use, more soil erosion, water degradation and habitat destruction.
There are also more conflicts occurring between different users of the national forest, he said.
"We've got to get a handle on that," he said.
Ultimately, the Forest Service is going to need some help from people who enjoy ATVs in the backcountry to ensure that the sport can continue at its current levels. In the Madison district, there are about 600-plus miles of roads, most of which are open to motorized recreation, and another 700 miles of trail, of which about 25 percent is open to ATVs or motorcycles.
"The options that we're faced with as land managers is either to encourage education or, if that doesn't work, then limit opportunities," said Klein. "We've had to close places before because of an inability to control illegal cross-country use."
"No one wants to be a fink, but ATV users do need to do a better job of policing their ranks," he said. "They need to let those few who can't follow the rules know they are giving the rest a black eye."