Property damage – The improper and illegal use of off-road vehicles

Every wildlife agent — and for that matter every law enforcement officer — has a vivid recollection of one case or another for various reasons. Such cases might stand out because of who the offender was, the severity of the offenses, it’s blatancy or the plain stupidity of it all.

One case in particular comes to mind for the latter two reasons.

It was in the late ’70s, and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had put forth a considerable effort and lots of money to build a good, all-weather road on Grassy Lake Wildlife Management Area. The road ran along Bayou Natchitoches from the WMA’s west boundary to the east boundary on the Red River, and it provided access to some prime fishing in a couple of lakes within the WMA and to several camps on the river just across the property line.

Those camps could only be reached from the Red by boat when the old road was impassable, which was most of the time.

The new road was paved with clamshell, and had ditches and culverts for drainage. Those of us who worked the area were pretty proud of the new road, and it made patrolling the area a lot easier.

One Sunday afternoon after a big late-summer thunderstorm, I entered the WMA via the new road. I had not gone very far before noticing fresh tire tracks on the wet surface.

The disturbing part was the tracks didn’t remain on the road: The vehicle had left the road in several places, cutting across the ditches to make deep ruts on the shoulders, in the ditches and on the road right of way on the far side of the ditch.

Mud was tracked and slung everywhere.

Whoever was doing this was nothing if not persistent. The ditches on both sides of the road were thoroughly rutted, and the damage went for quite a way along the road.

Most violations didn’t make me angry, but this one did. It was needless vandalism and wanton destruction. I was further angered by the thought that whomever had done this was probably long gone and would get away.

But I was wrong. Just around the next curve, sitting in the ditch in deep mud was a Jeep. It was thoroughly stuck.

A winch cable ran from the front of the Jeep to a tree on the opposite side of the road. It  had been winched down the ditch a little way but would not climb out onto the road.

Instead, it had come to rest against one of the new culverts in the ditch, and one front tire was jammed tight against the mouth of the culvert.

The winch cable was tight as a guitar string.

And there, standing in the road, getting paler by the second as he watched me step out of my patrol vehicle was the driver, a young man who had been having himself quite a time until fate intervened.

I told him he could go ahead and let the tension off the winch, and hand over his driver’s license and registration since we would be here awhile doing paperwork.

After I issued him citations for damage to state property and driving in unauthorized areas, we got the Jeep back on the road.

I even escorted him off the WMA.

I suppose one reason the case stands out in my memory is that it was not the last of its kind, and vehicle damage to public and private land and some very beautiful and pristine wildlife habitat continues to be a problem.

“Mud riding,” as it is commonly called, is very popular with many people. It is also big business, with millions of dollars spent on off-road vehicles and accessories.

Some landowners, recognizing how popular the “sport” has become, have opened dirt and mud tracks on their properties with great success. One property owner and smart businessman in Central Louisiana has created a mud mecca, complete with mud tracks, camping facilities and vendors. He has even thrown in competitions, and festival weekends with music and entertainment nights.

It is wildly popular. I can always tell when a big weekend event is going on: A procession of pickups towing trailer-loads of off-road vehicles comes through on Friday. They make the return trip on Sunday, all covered in mud.

I did too much off-road travel, and getting cold, wet and muddy on the job to see much fun in it. But I do understand why so many people enjoy playing in the dirt and mud.

When it is confined to private land with landowner permission and designated areas on public land, mud or off-road riding is not a problem.

It does, however, become a serious problem when done where it shouldn’t be. The Kisatchie National Forest Evangeline Unit is very near my home, and damage and destruction by vehicles to habitat and trails that are intended for hiking and bicycling is a persistent problem.

And, while driving along Forest Service roads, it is not at all uncommon to find rutted-up ditches, and destroyed small trees and brush where a 4×4 vehicle left the road to rip around in the mud — just for fun.

Unauthorized off-road travel and damage continues to be a problem on wildlife management areas, as well.

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries restricts the size and weight of all-terrain and utility terrain vehicles, and has tire restrictions, as well. In addition, off-road vehicles are restricted to certain designated trails.

However, it is not easy to allow hunter access and recovery of harvested deer and hogs while trying to protect WMAs from property damage and wildlife from disturbance.

Numerous complaints are also received regarding noisy off-road travel during prime hunting hours. It is a difficult enforcement challenge.

Damage is not restricted to the forest and woods. Plenty can be found right along major highways.

A couple of years ago, a significant snowfall left a blanket of snow on a hillside along a major highway just a few miles west of Alexandria. Irresponsible local ATV riders used the hillside for playground.

When the snow cleared, nothing was left but a muddy slope with an erosion problem. Without a doubt, the maintenance and repair costs paid for with taxpayer dollars were high.

Off-road vehicles when used properly are wonderful means of transportation and access to hard-to-reach places. They make game retrieval a quick and easy process, and those of us old enough to remember dragging deer and hogs for hundreds of yards to reach the road really appreciate that benefit.

But, as with so many other tools, when used irresponsibly or illegally the results are restrictions and regulations that would not be necessary otherwise.

We can all help by teaching youngsters to use ATVs safely and responsibly, and by reporting intentional damage, destruction and illegal use when and where we see it.

About Keith LaCaze 100 Articles
Retired Wildlife Enforcement Lieutenant Colonel Keith LaCaze spent 34 years with the LDWF beginning in 1977. LaCaze is happily married to wife Mitzi and the father of two children.