They’ve become a common part of the Southern Nevada desert: utility terrain vehicles zipping around the Nellis Dunes recreation area north of Las Vegas or Jeep Jamborees negotiating bumpy Rocky Gap Road from the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to Pahrump.
Southern Nevada is home to tens of thousands of off-highway vehicles, with the off-road industry — like other sectors of the Las Vegas-area economy — slowly rebounding from the Great Recession.
“The economy is the driving force,” said Kenny Freeman, a Las Vegas native who serves as president of the 1,200-member Southern Nevada Off Road Enthusiasts (SNORE). “Before the (recession), everybody had a toy and could play in the desert.”
Freeman said the most popular form of off-highway vehicle is the utility terrain vehicle, or UTV. It’s like a small dune buggy that holds two or four people and sells in the $6,000 to $25,000 range. Polaris, John Deere, Yamaha are typical manufacturers of these UTVs, or “side-by-sides.”
On any given weekend day, you can find 10,000-15,000 off-road enthusiasts riding some form of off-road vehicle in the Nellis Dunes, north of Las Vegas. The Nellis Dunes, administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, is a designated off-road area and does not require participants to possess any special permits, Freeman said.
Clark County hopes to carve out some land at the Nellis Dunes National Off Highway Vehicle Recreation Area that would be designated for off-road use.
Off-roading extends to some of the desert’s most high-profile sports events, such as the MINT 400, which was staged last month.
While the SNORE off-road club serves as an entry point for enthusiasts, the off-roaders who have the deepest pockets and a thirst for sport participate in the nine annual desert races put on by Las Vegas-based Best in the Desert Racing Association.
At the top echelon, a desert racer can spend $500,000 to $600,000 for the most tricked-out truck and another $1 million a year for maintenance and operations, said Casey Folks, director of Best in the Desert Racing Association and owner of Sportsmans Cycle Sales in Las Vegas.
“I call it the fat-wallet sport,” said Folks, a veteran off-road motorcycle racer who puts on the desert races.
Besides putting on the MINT 400, Best in the Desert also stages the Vegas to Reno race, a 550-mile off-road jaunt. Racers are eating dust in cars, trucks, motorcycles, UTVs and quads. Folks said it costs him $180,000 to put on that event, the longest off-road race in the world.
But the vast majority of off-roaders are not racing. Most are weekend warriors who ride the desert land managed by the BLM.
That federal agency has issued 10 permits for off-highway events and another 14 for commercial off-highway vehicle operators, said Hillerie Patton, a BLM spokeswoman.
For off-highway riders, there is no fee to drive an OHV on public lands — unless it’s a business.
If you want to conduct an off-road business on BLM lands, you must apply for a Special Recreation Permit. The minimun annual fee for a permit is $105, or 3 percent of gross annual revenue, whichever is bigger.
Patton said the BLM is seeing a steady increase of off-highway vehicles on federal lands.
She explained BLM’s off-road policy this way: “As a multiple-use agency, the BLM encourages recreational activities on the land it administers. Off-highway vehicles are one of many ways to enjoy the Southern Nevada landscape. Due to public health and environmental concerns, off-highway vehicle closures are in place for BLM managed public lands within and designated areas surrounding the Las Vegas Valley.”
The BLM closure includes Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area and wilderness areas. The boundaries are to the north, Apex on Interstate 15 or Lee Canyon on U.S. 95; to the south, the Sloan exit on I-15 or mile marker 14.5 on State Route 604; to the east, Lake Mead National Recreation Area; to the west, Spring Mountains National Recreation Area.
The policy allows — outside of the closure area — off-highway vehicles to use existing roads, trails and washes within the BLM Las Vegas field office-managed public lands.
Patton said there are some things to remember: All terrain vehicles operated on public lands must have a muffler, spark arrester and working headlights/tail lights for nighttime use. Children under 16 operating off-highway vehicles must be supervised by an adult.
BLM’s Las Vegas office also offers off-highway vehicle routes, including these popular ones:
■ Rocky Gap Road, located in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. This four-wheel drive route can be accessed from the Lost Creek/White Springs exit on the 13-mile scenic drive. It has narrow road conditions, frequent washouts and lots of rocks. Not recommended for passenger cars or low-clearance vehicles.
■ Big Dune, 15 miles south of Beatty, south of U.S 95.
■ Jean/Roach Dry Lake Bed Area, 20 miles south of Las Vegas, east of Jean.
■ Eldorado Valley, five miles southwest of Boulder City.
■ Nelson Hills, 17 miles south of Las Vegas on Highway 95, turn left at Highway 165, drive about three miles, then south on powerline road one-half mile.
■ Nellis Dunes, north of Nellis Air Force Base.
Freeman said his off-road enthusiast organization is also experiencing growth of about 10-15 percent annually the past two years. He noted that before the Great Recession about 70 percent of the SNORE membership was from the building industry. These days, about 45 percent of the members are from the construction field, he said.
SNORE holds race events that draw thousands of off-road enthusiasts.
During the annual Battle of Primm race held in February, the 100-mile race over two days features an 11-mile loop that drew 18,000 attendees and 275 vehicles, Freeman said.
To stage the race on BLM land, Freeman said SNORE paid the BLM $25,000 for environmental assessment and monitoring fees.
Tim Conway, owner of the Las Vegas Rock Crawlers off-road tour company, said he launched his business two years ago because many people visiting Las Vegas are looking for adventure. He has about 300 to 500 customers a month, with the majority coming from out of town.
“There are lot of people who are enthusiasts. They come to Las Vegas and they want to see the desert,” Conway said.
Clinton Cooper, owner of Maximum Offroad Performance in Las Vegas, said business is slowly improving, but there are slow stretches, too.
“It’s still up and down,” Cooper said. “It hasn’t come back to the way it was before the recesssion. The economy is still recovering. It’s not like it used to be.”
Contact Alan Snel at email@example.com or 702-387-5273. Find him on Twitter: @BicycleManSnel