OCALA, Fla. – In the nearly 387,000-acre Ocala National Forest, wild Florida shows its true colors for recreationists of all interests, whether they travel on foot, bike, horseback, ATV or by car.
And while the forest is largely open and uninhibited by signage or other human inventions, there are rules and regulations in place designed to protect ecosystems and the public lands for future generations. That same public land is threatened when off-roaders, wittingly or not, wander off marked routes and into fragile wetlands.
Gathered in the Lake George Ranger Station one March afternoon, a team of U.S. Forest Service employees, whose job it is to protect the forest and ensure responsible usage, displayed a map of routes through the forest. The black lines showed forest roads, while the green lines represented previously legal roads that were closed. There were pink lines sprawled all over the map.
Wildlife biologist Liz Ramirez explained those are all illegal, user-created trails caused by off-roaders going where they shouldn’t. It was jarring to see how many of them there were.
But the problem of non-designated use has multiple roots, and sometimes recreationists may be driving on roads that seem legitimate even when they’re not.
Millions of people visit Florida’s national forests — Ocala, Apalachicola and Osceola — each year. But while visiting, some may not realize that following common GPS apps could lead them astray.
Or visitors who have fond memories of exploring certain places decades ago might not understand that those areas are now closed.
The misunderstanding can be explained by a change in methodology in the mid-2000s.
“Everything was open unless it was designated as no access,” said Jay Perry, recreation program manager for Ocala National Forest. “As we converted it, our chief back in the early 2000s determined one of the four threats to the national forest’s land was unmanaged motorized recreation.”
In 2004 and 2006, there were phased road closures to help mitigate some of the damage caused by previously legal off-roading. And now, areas are closed unless marked open.
“This is one of the most urban forests in the Forest Service system, so we get a lot of use and a lot of people travel through here all the time,” said Kyle Titus, wildlife technician. “I’ve run into plenty of people that say, ‘I was here in 2002, we used to go back to this place. How did I get there?’”
In addition, mapping data on Google Maps and other popular platforms isn’t consistent with some of the re-routed roads and closures in the forest, leading some people to explore routes they don’t know are illegal.
The lack of updated maps has been known to affect modern explorers who’ve gotten lost or stranded while following outdated guidance from their GPS.
“We’ve had people that wanted to get to the ranger station, they missed it, went down 11 and then turned off some side road that sent them down a sugar sand road,” Ramirez said. “They were driving a Volkswagen bug. They sunk it in 200 feet and they had no cell phone service.”
A good alternative comes by using an app called Avenza Maps, in which recreationists can download updated forest road maps. Using that, there’s no questioning whether a route is legal or not.
Creating illegal trails and routes can have devastating ramifications for the forest’s wildlife and ecosystems.
In one of the forest’s wetlands, cavalier off-roaders created a makeshift racetrack for mudding, creating deep ruts in the soggy earth.
“A lot of folks have a great time taking an ATV out to the wetlands and then creating ... racetracks,” Ramirez said. “This is one of the most horrific, most damaging things you can do to our forest ... There’s no room for tolerance when it comes to this.”
Creating these muddy tracks can have major impacts on the forest’s smallest critters and hydrological flow.
“There’re newts, salamanders, all kinds of dragonfly larvae, crayfish. Hundreds of species use a wetland like this,” Titus said. “They need that gradual transition in and out of a scrub. They need every layer of that to filter water as it comes in. Now, anytime it rains, water is going to flood down through here.”
And while the Forest Service’s first step doesn’t always involve issuing citations and violations, they take wetland damage seriously.
“All but one of our citations and violation notices that we write for anything that happens out in the forest are all class B federal misdemeanors,” Perry said. “They’re punishable by up to six months in federal prison and a $5,000 fine.”
He said if he found anyone using a damaged wetland for mudding, he’d write them a $530 violation notice that could potentially include a court appearance. But the purpose isn’t just to scare people off.
“The whole purpose of doing that is to protect these resources, not just to close off areas for no reason,” said Susan Blake, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in Florida.
FIXING THE PROBLEM
Repairing these fragile wetlands can take time, money and resources that otherwise could have been spared if people followed the rules.
Muddy tracks take only five minutes to create but the resulting disturbed land can take decades to fully recover. Or thousands of dollars and heavy equipment, also a preventable impact, that comes at the expense of the Forest Service. Titus said that restoring even one damaged wetland area is a big task.
“It’s going to be tens of thousands of dollars in rental fees and paying other people,” he said. “And it wouldn’t be fixed for 50 years if we never touched it again, probably.”
Closing off illegal routes might sound easy, but that can involve rerouting roads — a process that requires a huge effort to mitigate impacts to wildlife — and sometimes only provides a temporary solution. One dirt berm closing off a route had to be rebuilt three times.
And other than inconspicuous signposts marking numbered roads, the Forest Service prefers not to put up signs everywhere designating what’s open and not, wishing to avoid “sign pollution.”
Fixing the problem of illegal off-roading involves a multi-pronged approach.
“There’s the three E’s of recreation. Education, engineering — that’s always there with bollards, signs and educating people about why it’s closed off,” Titus said. “Enforcement is kind of the last straw ... Sometimes people take signs down and open areas up because they want to go back there. Then people that want to do the right thing don’t know that they’re doing the wrong thing if something is taken away.”
Another solution has come through offering people legal alternatives to driving off route and damaging the forest. Almost 200 miles of trail was designed for off-highway vehicles such as ATVs, motorcycles and side-by-sides.
“This is one of the few large trail systems in the state,” Titus said. “On public lands and for $10, there’s nowhere else to ride for 200 miles.”
IT’S ALL CONNECTED
Over at Juniper Springs, recreationists bathed in the cool waters and basked in the sun. What those same people may not realize is that the health of Florida’s springs depends on others following the rules and sticking to marked routes within the forest.
“This whole forest is a water recharge area. ... It’s all connected. We’re above the Floridan aquifer, where all of this water filters down and comes back up out of the springs,” Ramirez said. “When you have ATVs going through wetlands and compacting that land and making the percolation filled with pollution, you’re spreading invasives, all of that’s going to have a bigger impact down the line.”
Sometimes, reducing human impact can have huge positive results for the forest’s wildlife.
“When we did restoration at Salt Springs and shut it down for a couple of months, the river otters were swimming up into it, there were so many birds and turtles,” Ramirez said. “They were just frolicking in the water.”
And it may be possible to recreate in harmony with the forest’s native plants and animals, as long as everyone follows the rules. But preserving a national forest is a delicate balance between active management and letting the natural environment express its wild beauty while allowing recreationists to enjoy it how they wish. Responsibly and legally, of course.
Regardless of efforts, sometimes it can be difficult to correct bad behavior, as proven by Juniper Springs visitors who had pulled up and destroyed eelgrass from the spring-fed swimming hole.
“Keeping the natural resources there for future generations in healthy shape and keeping those opportunities to enjoy hiking, off-highway vehicle use, riding your horses, all that stuff — for everyone to do it in perpetuity is the goal in balancing all of that,” Titus said.