During a recent investigation, Law Enforcement officers gathered information about mudding that occurred over Memorial Weekend northwest of Buck Lake Campground, near Winthrop Washington. The meadow was torn up by vehicles; here there was green grass, there are now mud pits and tire tracks. The activities that caused this damage are illegal under both state and federal law. Participants could face charges including malicious mischief and fines up to and including paying for the costs of restoration.
“Mudding, or driving through moist areas and puddles while mud sprays up onto a vehicle, is considered fun by some motor sports enthusiasts,” said Shannon O’Brien, Public Affairs Specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. “Some people enjoy the challenge of maneuvering a vehicle through a situation where they could get stuck, or they may simply get a thrill out of seeing how high they can fling mud. There are websites and groups that cater to this interest and there are places, mostly private land (with a landowners permission), where such activities are allowed.”
“But the National Forest is not such a place,” she said. “Individuals responsible for causing damage to roads, property or forest land can be sited for malicious mischief and face financial charges for the cost of rehabilitating any damage they cause. It can run into thousands of dollars.”
The Memorial Day incident isn’t the first time such damage has occurred. Several years ago, there was a similar case on National Forest Lands managed by the Methow Valley Ranger District and the individuals responsible for the damage faced criminal charges along with being billed by the Forest Service for the costs of restoration.
There is a difference between acceptable use of off-highway vehicles and mudding. The difference is that mudding is illegal and it is destructive. Off-highway vehicles are permitted on designated trails within the National Forest system. These trails are built specifically to minimize the impact of vehicles on fragile ecosystems, such as meadows and streams. Many trails are maintained by volunteers, and are prime examples of citizens acting as stewards of public land.
“Mudding can occur on roads or off of them,” said O’Brien. It’s more a question of whether the activity is causing damage. Is it tearing through grass to expose underlying soil, or is the individual unnecessarily driving through a soft spot in the road? If the answers to those questions are yes, the activity is illegal and the individuals involved could face charges.”
Some may ask themselves, “what’s the big deal?” People have enjoyed playing in puddles forever. The big deal though is that mudding is illegal and it damages the forest. It rips up plants, compacts soil, harms wildlife and costs a lot of money to fix.
Under 36 Code of Federal Regulations 261.13, section h: "It is prohibited to operate any vehicle off Forest Development, State or County roads... in a manner which damages or unreasonably disturbs the land, wildlife, or vegetative resources."
Spinning tires on plants destroys the plants, leaving behind bare dirt. When plants are gone, there is nothing to stop soil from washing into nearby streams and lakes. Muddy streams and lakes are bad for fish, wildlife, irrigators, recreationists, and towns dependent upon clean water and tourism for survival. When native plants are gone, noxious weeds move in. A meadow of native grasses and flowers may soon become a field of thistles and knapweed.
Mudding compacts soil. Healthy soil should bounce a bit when you walk on it. Tire tracks create hard, dried up soil. This hard soil doesn't allow water to move into the ground. Instead, water runs down tire tracks and into creeks and lakes, carrying mud and pollutants with it. It is hard for plants to grow in compacted soil-imagine trying to extend your legs through a concrete floor.
Meadows and wetlands provide important breeding, rearing, and foraging habitats for many birds and other animals. Tearing-up these areas removes nesting and hiding cover, decreases forage, interferes with feeding, and pushes animals out into areas where they may not survive.
Restoring an area damaged by mudding is expensive. Smoothing ruts, reseeding or planting and repairing roadbeds costs a lot of money. In situations where the individuals are not caught, every taxpayer has to pitch in to cover the restoration costs. When caught, individuals responsible for the damage can be fined up to $5000. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service may bring a civil suit against the individual to pay for the costly restoration.