Utility task vehicles, better known as UTVs or side-by-sides, in the Black Hills. (Courtesy of Black Hills National Forest)
There was a time years ago when Travis Bies didn’t worry as much about cattle escaping his Black Hills pastures.
“Every Monday, you had to be there and check your gates to make sure they were closed,” Bies said. “Now, I’ve had to hire a full-time person to be there every day.”
That’s because so many more people are driving utility task vehicles — known as UTVs, or as “side-by-sides” due to their multiple seats — and are failing to close the gates they open.
Escaped cattle are one impact from a surge in UTV popularity in the Black Hills. Locals, tourists and rental businesses bought more than 35,000 motorized trail permits last year in the Black Hills National Forest, more than three times as many as a decade ago.
Complaints have also arisen, about increased dust, noise, ruts and off-trail riding. UTVers, meanwhile, complain that the trail system has too many dead ends.
Rising tensions have forced the U.S. Forest Service to take action in recent years, including the creation of a Black Hills trail ranger program to police UTV traffic. Additional steps are planned, including a possible increase in permit fees that has some UTVers pushing back.
Fee increase debated
Bies, the cattle rancher, is from the rural enclave of Fairburn just outside the Black Hills. He pays the U.S. Forest Service to graze cattle on public land in the Black Hills National Forest, but the land remains open to public use. UTVers are within their rights to open and pass through gates along designated trails, and Bies just wishes they’d heed signs encouraging them to close the gates.
He may get more help from forest managers. They’re planning a market study next year and other steps toward raising motorized trail permit fees by an as-yet undetermined amount in 2025.
Current fees for individual off-road vehicles are $20 for a seven-day permit and $25 for an annual permit, and have not been raised since they were implemented 13 years ago. Rental businesses pay $125 per year for each of their vehicles.
Fees in other forests and states typically start at $50 and go up from there, according to Ralph Adam, of the Black Hills National Forest. He presented UTV information earlier this month to the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board.
Members of the local Off-Road Riders Association attended the meeting and expressed concern about the fee plan.
“Every year, talk of increasing trail permit fees comes up,” said association member Patty Brown. “And meanwhile, we’ve been asking for accountability and transparency on the use of the funds, and so far no evidence has been shown for the need for additional funds.”
Adam’s presentation mentioned several initiatives underway to better manage UTV use, but he did not propose specific uses for the additional revenue from increased permit fees. Last year’s permit sales totaled nearly $1 million, which means if each permit doubled in price and sales numbers remained the same, total sales would be nearly $2 million.
Not the first off-road debate
The existing permit-and-fee structure is the product of a previous era’s angst about off-road vehicles.
As recently as the early 2000s, there were few restrictions on off-road travel in the Black Hills National Forest. Complaints about ruts and other damage to environmentally sensitive areas motivated a new travel management plan in 2010.
The plan flipped the default position toward off-road vehicles. As a Rapid City Journal editorial described it, motorized travel was previously “allowed anywhere, except where it was designated as closed. Now, it will be closed to motorized travel except where it is allowed.”
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Along with the new plan came permits and maps. The maps showed roads open to all vehicles, motorized trails open to all-terrain vehicles and motorbikes, and non-motorized trails open to hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders.
Neither the plan nor the people who prepared it foresaw the revolution that was about to overtake the off-road vehicle industry. In the years since the plan was adopted, recreational riders have largely abandoned traditional ATVs — such as three-wheelers and four-wheelers, operated by a single driver — in favor of larger UTVs with seating for two or more people.
UTVs can be registered, licensed and driven on South Dakota roads. That means the Black Hills motorized trail system is no longer used as it was intended. The architects of the travel plan envisioned people hauling ATVs into the forest on trailers and unloading them at trailheads. Instead, said the forest’s Ralph Adam, modern users are driving their UTVs from cities to the forest and to points in between.
A rented UTV is some tourists’ main mode of transport.
“They’re renting the machines. They’re driving out of the parking lot and proceeding to their destination,” Adam said. “And then when their rental time is done, they’re driving them back.”
The phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by Black Hills residents, said Scott Guffey, Pennington County’s natural resources director and a member of the forest advisory board.
“I’m sure we’ve all run into those lines of 20 side-by-sides going down Highway 385, and traffic’s backed up behind there,” Guffey said. “That’s super frustrating, and it’s a huge safety issue.”
Others see opportunity. Al Johnson represents the interests of off-road enthusiasts and other forms of commercial recreation in his service on the forest advisory board.
“The economic impact of off-highway vehicle use in the Black Hills is just enormous, both from visitors and from the locals,” Johnson said. “It’s millions of dollars annually.”
Current numbers, plans
The explosive growth of UTV recreation is evidenced by permit sales. In 2011, the first full year of the new rules, the Black Hills National Forest sold 7,832 motorized trail permits. By 2021, that number had risen to a peak of 38,521. Some of the recent permits were for ATVs and motorbikes, but the Forest Service estimates up to 90% were for UTVs.
Hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, grazing permittees, hunters, anglers and others are increasingly interrupted by UTVs. Bies, the cattle rancher, said some interruption is expected and appropriate on public land.
“I’m 100 percent for multiple uses of the Black Hills,” Bies said. “It’s always been that way, and I want it to stay that way.”
But he and some others think the scales have tipped a little too far toward UTVs.
The Forest Service has responded by creating a trail ranger program. Two crews based in Rapid City and Nemo conduct daily patrols. They write few tickets and instead focus on educating riders about permits and designated trails.
I’m 100 percent for multiple uses of the Black Hills. It’s always been that way, and I want it to stay that way.
– Travis Bies, Black Hills Nattional Forest grazing permittee
Forest managers also hosted an off-highway vehicle summit in 2021 and workshops in 2022. Twenty-four recommendations flowed from that work. Adam said he and his staff have implemented or begun implementation of six recommendations.
That includes more and better signs on gates and trails, more rollover cattle guards to negate the need for gates, more visits by trail rangers to UTV rental businesses, addressing dead-end routes with new connections or clearer signage, more educational materials for UTVers, and the potential fee increase.
“As you can expect with any list of recommendations, they’re recommendations,” Adam said. “So we took it to heart and we’re doing what we can.”
The Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board is developing a work group to assist forest managers with evaluating and possibly implementing the fee increase and other remaining recommendations.
Ideas for using increased fee revenue abound. They include hiring more trail rangers and designating or creating more motorized trails to disperse UTV traffic beyond its current concentration in the northern Black Hills — an idea likely to be opposed by some non-motorized recreationists who prefer having UTVs confined to a particular area.
Bies thinks a cap on permits is worth discussing.
“I just think our Hills are overrun,” he said.
Meanwhile, there are signs the UTV craze may have peaked. After a record 38,521 UTV permits were sold in 2021, the number dropped to 35,480 in 2022.
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