Off-limits to off-roaders
Patrick McNamara/The Explorer, A sign on the gate at Marana's Tortolita Preserve clearly prohibits vehicles from entering. But it has been battered and left open. ATV tracks can be seen streaking through the passageway into the environmental area. Often, there's little the town can do to prevent such transgressions.

For all-terrain vehicle and four-wheel drive enthusiasts, these are tough times.

As government agencies increasingly deny motorized vehicles access to public lands, riders have come to feel under assault. Much of the pressure has come from within their own ranks.

“We’re concerned about people making roads,” Malcolm Leslie said.

He’s a member of the Tucson Rough Riders, a group of four-wheelers who make regular excursions through the state’s wild places.

Leslie’s quick to point out what the group doesn’t do — they don’t stray from established ATV roads and they don’t venture where they’re not welcome.

When all-terrain vehicles cut new trails through the desert, they can leave permanent scars on the landscape.

“We’re concerned about people acting responsibly,” he said.

Leslie worries that irresponsible riders have contributed to a growing image problem for the Rough Riders and other off-road enthusiasts.

In Marana’s Tortolita Preserve, town officials report that fences have been cut and off-road vehicles driven into the protected desert stand.

The area was established as preserve to offset development in nearby Dove Mountain.

The park holds scores of saguaros, ironwood trees and habitat once occupied by the storied cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. 

“Anytime a vehicle goes off road through the desert, that’s a 50-year scar,” said Marana Parks and Recreation Director Tom Ellis.

Similar problems caused the federal Bureau of Land Management to earlier this year close portions of the Sonoran Desert National Monument to off-road vehicles.

The 775-square mile desert preserve sits between Casa Grande and Gila Bend.

Off-roading was allowed until recently, but federal officials blame vehicles for environmental damage and the closure of an 88-square mile section of the monument.

They estimate the section could be closed for up to three years.

Marana prohibits off-road vehicles in the Tortolita Preserve, but that hasn’t stopped some people from flouting the rules. Evidence of off-road vehicles abounds in the preserve.

About halfway into the preserve along Moore Road, the dividing line between the Tortolita Preserve from the state trust land to the south, a gate stands to let people inside.

The gate was wide open with truck and ATV tracks cut deep into the dirt heading inside the preserve. A sign on the gate states plainly that motorized vehicles may not enter.

For five years, rancher Francisco Jimenez has run 96 cows on a portion of the state land to the south.

Often he sees off-road vehicles on the land he leases from the state, and more times than he can remember he’s repaired gates and fences people vandalized.

“Every Monday I check the fences, I know there are going to be holes,” the rancher said.

Some weekends he’ll see as many as 40 people with motorcycles and ATVs riding, partying and having barbecues in the desert.

The public can access state lands and even drive off-road vehicles on designated trails, but one must buy a permit first.

That could be part of the problem. With no fences to separate the state’s property from Marana’s preserve, many off-roaders might not realize when they cross the boundary into protected areas.

Others, however, know well that the preserve is off limits.

At one time, signs lined the washes flowing through the preserve and the border around the property, but no longer.

“There’s not nearly as many signs out there today,” Ellis said.

He figures people used many of the signs for target practice and took others as souvenirs.

The town also prohibits shooting in the preserve. But the shell casings, empty ammunition boxes and shattered remnants of computers and other electronics littering areas in and around the preserve indicate some people don’t much care.

The town, though, has few options when combating unlawful use of the preserve.

“I think in the end, the town will have to fence the preserve,” Ellis said.

Even if that happens, Marana police would periodically patrol the area.

On a recent Friday, Marana Police Mounted Patrol officers K.J. Trapp and Ed Muszala spent most of the day on horseback riding through the Tortolita Preserve looking for evidence of off-road vehicles and other prohibited activity.

Most of the time, they find it.

“They have every right in the world to be upset,” Tucson Rough Riders member Leslie said of town officials.

He shares the frustration of public officials who want to preserve desert habitat, and his group often works with agencies to clean up the desert and repair broken fences.

“We actually put up fences,” Leslie said.

Members of the Tucson Rough Riders recently helped fix a broken gate and damaged fences at the entrance to the Charouleau Gap, a 19-mile four-wheel drive trail on the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

The group also makes frequent trips into Rail X Ranch, an area that recently has become known as Arroyo Grande, a 14-square mile section of Arizona State Land Department property north of Oro Valley.

The town has been in talks with the land department for more than two years about possibly annexing the property.

Leslie said the group often drives the trails in Arroyo Grande and makes an annual pilgrimage there to remove trash from the property.

“The only thing that makes me more angry than getting shut out of public land,” Leslie said, “is someone trashing it.”

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