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The problem with ORVs

Dear Editor:

Recently, John “Mad Cow” Hembel wrote that no evidence exists to suggest that off-road vehicles (ORVs) in Utah may be deteriorating Colorado’s snowpack (“Gem proposal discriminates,” Jan. 20, letters to the editor, The Aspen Times).

Furthermore, Mr. Hembel explained that because of a 10-plus-year ski career in the Alps, he knows that only 1 percent of the desert dust deposited in the mountain snows of Colorado comes from human activity, such as dirt roads and ORVs. These assertions do more to demonstrate the effectiveness of prions than the strength of Mr. Hembel’s logic. He is wrong on both counts.

In 2007, the journal Geophysical Research Letters published the results of research conducted by Thomas Painter et al. in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains examining the effects of disturbed desert dust on snow melt. Dr. Painter and his team of scientists found that this dust caused the snowpack in those mountains to melt 18 to 35 days earlier than it would have otherwise in 2005 and 2006. Recently, Dr. Painter explained to a water conference in Grand Junction that in 2009 – a dustier year than 2005 or 2006 – desert dust likely caused the snowpack of the San Juans to melt a whopping 48 days early.

A team of researchers, led by J. C. Neff, published a paper in 2008 in Nature Geoscience containing an analysis of the provenance of dust deposited in the high alpine lakes of the San Juan Mountains. This research identified the Colorado Plateau as the principle source of most of the dust in the San Juan Mountains and that this dust increased dramatically once European settlers arrived in the West. In fact, dust accumulation rates for roughly the past 150 years have been five times greater than the dust accumulation rates for the past 5,000 years. Such evidence completely obliterates Mr. Hembel’s baseless assertion that only 1 percent of wind erosion is cause by human activity.

Strong scientific evidence shows that desert dust from the Colorado Plateau is causing early snowmelt in Colorado and that the majority of this dust is likely caused by human activity. So which human activities are causing this dust? ORVs, grazing, and oil and gas development are likely the biggest culprits since they are the main soil-destabilizing activities in this region. Research from the U. S. Geological Survey indicates that on some desert soils wind erosion can increase by up to 550 times as a result of ORVs. To make matters worse, recently the Bureau of Land Management designated more than 20,000 miles of dirt routes for ORVs on Utah’s portion of the Colorado Plateau alone. It is difficult to understand how this action will not contribute to dust-wind erosion.

Mr. Hembel’s glib ridicule does not change the significance of this problem or the likely sources. Desert dust, principally generated by human activity, is harming Colorado’s snowpack. For reasonable people the connection is clear, ORVs are part of the problem.

David Garbett

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Salt Lake City, Utah


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