OHV use explodes in the Southern Hills

By Leslie Silverman and Carol Walker

With a trail system on the Black Hills National Forest (BHNF) that boasts 3,600 miles of roads and trails and within the forest 700 miles of designated motorized trails, the Black Hills has seen an explosion of UTV and ATV use. Individuals and families have found a way to cover a lot of ground and experience the beauty of forest, hills, lakes and streams in the Black Hills from the seat of an off-highway vehicle (OHV).
Scott Jacobson, BHNF public information officer, said that overall, UTV drivers are doing a pretty good job of staying on designated trails and roads and practicing proper trail etiquette. However, he said there is always a need for more staff to monitor all the trails. Last year  the Forest Service sold more than 30,000 permits and is on track for about the same this year.
Owners of UTV or side-by-side rental businesses can verify that there has been a definite uptick in the use of these vehicles.
This is the third year Michelle Witt from Rock Mill Adventures in Hill City has been renting ATVs and said every year there has been an increase in drivers and riders. She said people like to take the vehicle out on the trails or to Custer State Park so they can travel the roads there. Her business on Main St. in Hill City rents Honda Pioneers and CF Moto machines.
It is not true in every state, but South Dakota allows OHV drivers to use highways as long as they have a drivers license and vehicles are licensed. All of the rental establishments have road-licensed OHVs and encourage good trail etiquette.
“I tell people, if there is a closed sign on the trial, don’t go on it. It can ruin things for everyone. When my husband and I go out riding we end up picking up trash. I tell people who rent our machines, please pick up after yourselves,” Witt said.
At Hill City Adventures, near First Interstate Bank in Hill City, the Schriners go over some of the same things as they rent OHVs to people. They like to point out trails on a large map on their wall that shows the trails open to UTV users.
Like the other OHV rental operations, downloading the free Avenza app is recommended, which tracks where people are and operates off GPS so they don’t have to have cell reception on the trail. Hill City Adventures has Kawasaki and TerryX UTVs that are governed at 50 miles per hour.
“We suggest entering the trail system from either China Gulch or Battle Axe Rd. The families and individuals come back and generally have had a very positive experience. Someone had a flat tire out on the trail, but they were able to get word back to town for one of the Hill City Adventures people to go out and repair it,” said Journey Schriner.
TEAM UTV and Car Rentals, in front of Trailsides Campground, is owned by Mike Wagner and run by his sons, Shane and Joel. They are able to very easily rent their Honda Talons to campers a few hundred feet away as well as others who stop by.
The Wagners spend quite a bit of time explaining safety, giving tips on trails, getting signatures on paperwork, making sure people understand they cannot abuse the vehicles or they will have to pay. Generally, they come back “overjoyed” with their experience on the trail and thank the Wagners for the great experience.
“We give them a tablet with GPS on it. We download a map, and as they travel on the trails, it leaves ‘bread crumbs’ on it, showing how to get back to where they started. When we have down days, we try to create points of interest on the map,” said Shane.
Alex and Holly Neimann, owners of Adventure Rentals, are new to the Hill City area this year with their home location being in Custer. They said they are about on pace with last year, which was a big year because renting a UTV was something people could do in the Covid-restricted world. They had people come back from a ride last year and thank them because it was just what their family needed, they said. The Niemanns rent Polaris Rzrs.
“It’s the best way to see the Black Hills. It’s a freeing thing to have it open on both sides, and people can toodle along at their own pace. About half of the people have never ridden a four-wheeler before, and they find hidden treasures like old mines, old caves, scenic overlooks. They begin to understand why we live here,” Holly said.
Owner of Black Hills Wilderness Edge Adventures, Becki Groven can’t keep up with the demand for side by sides.
“We are easily booking up two to three weeks in advance, which is usually not the case. It’s just been insane. We turn down multiple calls a day,” Groven said.
Groven’s business is on the Old Hill City Keystone Rd., and she has 15 Kawasaki side-by-side units to rent with her small staff. If she had the staff to keep up with more units she thinks she would easily be able to book them out.
Groven typically sees more families than individuals. Some places don’t allow kids under 5, but her insurance is fine with it. Drivers must be at least 25 years old.
Like all the other rental businesses, Groven loves the Avenza Map the BHNF has for free on its website. She stresses the importance of the map with all her customers.
Groven loves running her business but admits some customers are difficult.
“When we have people who treat the trails with respect then I have no problems with it, but when units come back really muddy, and they’ve been tearing up the trails, I get furious,” Groven said.
She is concerned about what that excessive wear and tear will do to the trails over time, especially with more disrespectful riders.
“The biggest thing I tell them is ‘When you come back in three years and you’re not able to do this because our trail system is shut down, that’s on you,’” she said.
She got into the business because she enjoys riding with her family and wants to give families a fun riding experience. However, she wonders if more regulation in the Black Hills is needed.
“There needs to be some sort of regulation. I feel like, whether it’s guided tours with people actually taking people on the trails just like a horseback trail.” she said. “I just see there’s so much traffic. It used to be you’d be on the back trails and you wouldn’t see anybody and now you run into so many.”
She feels the Forest may be at its “critical point.” The state of South Dakota has 50,000 registered side-by-side vehicles while the BHNF sold 32,000 trail permits last year.
As all the rental businesses and the general public have seen, people are out in force with either rental UTVs or their own machines. The BHNF attempts to update its website, indicating trail closures, which all the rental businesses try to consult for new information. BHNF trail rangers have their work cut out for them as they travel the trails, meeting the drivers and riders.
“Their primary job is not necessarily policing the trails, although they do write tickets if need be. But they attempt to educate people on the land and make sure people understand the system, the signs, the maps and in general are getting what they need,” said Scott Jacobson of the U.S. Forest Service.
Of course, not everyone is happy with the additional traffic on the roads and trails in the Black Hills. Jacobson said they get complaints about trespassing on private land, mudding, chasing cattle and cutting fences. In addition, the noise, slow traffic on public roads and highways and dust are comments Forest Service officials hear.
As a result of positive and negative comments coming in the BHNF spearheaded an OHV summit in late February, and out of that came the Off-Highway Vehicle Action Team, which was reported on in a recent Hill City Prevailer. The group meets monthly to discuss these issues and come to conclusions on how to “clearly define limitations on trails, maintenance and improve signage,” as reported in a KELOLand interview with Corbin Herman, motorized trail coordinator for the Forest Service.
There are people who are passionate about this sport and will do what it takes to keep the trails open, Herman said. In the spring of the year, volunteers take to the trails to remove trees that have fallen across the road.
Jacobson said one question, which Groven alluded to, they will grapple with in the future is, “Is there a carrying capacity for the forest when it comes to OHVs?”
Action team members will have to wrestle with that question as UTV activity continues to mount in the Black Hills National Forest.
With representation on the action team from county, state and federal officials as well as OHV users and landowners, the BHNF is hopeful this will be a recreational pursuit that will continue into the future.
“We ask that people to ride responsibly, use the system properly and hold each other accountable,” said Jacobson.

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