Smith River National Recreation Area: Off-Road Vehicle Playground or Botanical Wonderland?

It’s now or never for the wildflowers, wildlands, and watersheds of the remote and spectacular backcountry in the Smith River National Recreation Area of Northern California.

The public lands in the Smith River Watershed are legendary for their unique botanical diver- sity and for providing clear, cold water to the largest un-damned river system on the West Coast. It is a stunning and spectacular part of America’s natural heritage that is literally like nowhere else on Earth. 

Many fishermen, botanists, hikers, birders, hunters, boaters, and campers breathed a sigh of relief back in 1990 when then-president George H. W. Bush signed the Smith River National Recreation Area Act into law. It seemed that a social consensus had been reached that the botani- cal and watershed values of the Smith River Wildlands should be protected and handed down to future generations.

But 1990 was a long time ago, and in the past 24 years an explosion of extreme off-road vehicle use has trashed many of the special places that the Smith River Recreation Act was designed to protect. Meadows have been turned into mud bogs, streamside vegetation has been destroyed and creeks have been turned into 4 wheel drive obstacle courses.

Now the Forest Service is finally considering placing some limits on where and when extreme off-road vehicles can go in the Recreation Area, and predictably the Tea Party and the anti-public lands crowd are hopping mad.

In the coming months the Forest Service will decide whether or not to permanently designate remote botanical hotspots in the Smith River headwaters as off-road vehicle play areas or as protected wildlands. Right now these special places are wilder than wilderness, but it is up to us to ensure that we are not the last generation to enjoy the wonders of these wild public lands.