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Proposal by CoA4WDCi Land Use Chair


Purpose: To develop a national level description for 4WD Recreational roads that properly describes the road challenges desired by the 4WD community. To incorporate this national description into the public land managing agencies development and maintenance manuals. This rating system is used throughout this website.


What Exists: Today each public lands managing agency, corporate guide service, and individual club has a different 4WD road rating system. Carsonite International has developed 3" x 4" decals for use on carsonite posts, or other signs, that represent the Forest Service 4WD Ways difficulty descriptions. They are simple, modeled after the ski terrain logos of Green Circles for Easy (#E-378), Blue Squares for intermediate (#MD-374) or Moderate, Black Diamond for Difficult (#MD-373), and Double Black Diamond for Extreme (#EXT-3321).


Here is a cross references of other rating systems in place today:
Agency / Organization 2WD
Forest Service (West) Level 5-3 Level 2

Forest Service (East) Level A-C Level D

Forest Service
4WD Ways

Easy More Difficult Most Difficult
Back Country Byways
Type I Type II Type III

Jeep® Jamboree
Level 1-2 Level 3-4 Level 5-6 Level 7-9 Level 10
Sidekick (Rick Russell)
Off Road Maps

Easy More Difficult Most Difficult
Colorado Association
of 4WD Clubs, Inc.

Level 1-4 Level 5-7 Level 8-9 Level 10
Moab, Utah
Red Rock 4 Wheelers

2 & 2½ 3 & 3½ 4 & 4+ 5
South Dakota
Black Hills 4 Wheelers

Difficulty 1 & 2 Difficulty 3 Difficulty 4 & 4+ Difficulty 5
Arizona Association of
4WD Clubs

1 & 1½ (+) 2 & 2½ (+) 3 & 3½ (+) 4 & 4½ (+)


Description of Need: As can be seen by the table, the managing agencies have a difficult time recognizing the desired challenge levels for 4WD roads due to the lack of descriptive designations and maintenance specifications. Added to the confusion, even though recreational users call the routes we drive "4WD Roads", agency road manuals do not have a description for even the Moderate 4WD road category. The Forest Service lumps all 4WD Roads into Level II, which includes all forms of graded natural surface roads. The BLM puts 4WD Roads into Rural Roads, which follows a similar definition. You can find a description for ‘4WD Ways' in the Forest Service Trails Handbook that describes the lower level roads, calling them 'ways'. The BLM describes the lower level roads as ‘Rural Back Country Byways', again leaving out the ‘Road' description.


Some common words used to describe 4WD roads and the Webster's Dictionary definition.
Route - A way or road for passage or travel; the line or direction of a road.
Trace - A track, path, or trail, as left by an object or a person.
Track or Two Track - Something making a track, as the tread of a tire; the distance between the outside of the rims of the tires on a motor vehicle
Travelway - no definition.
Ghost Road- no definition.


A few examples can be seen in the policies being proposed and used, to manage public lands:

Colorado BLM

Southwest Resource Advisory Council

Meeting minutes September 11, 1997
"... ‘roads' as defined by BLM for the purpose of wilderness study, must be "constructed by mechanical means and maintained as necessary." The mere passage of vehicles along a route does not, in itself, constitute construction or maintenance and therefore may not allow that route to be classified as a "road." "

" vehicle (OHV) closures were not automatic when an area became a WSA, but if it was warranted, a WSA could be closed to OHV use (through the land use planning process)." "...environmental groups have a problem with OHV use in WSA's because it creates a constituency that becomes an advocate against wilderness designation and for continued OHV use."

Meeting minutes, January 8, 1998
"... Revised Statute 2477 was an issue when looking a closing routes." "... the definition of a "road" was one of the main problems in dealing with RS2477."

Forest Service

White River National Forest, Colorado, Analysis of the Management Situation - 1997

On Roadless Area Inventories.... "In some situations, a few primitive roads within a [roadless] area still meets the intent of the Wilderness Act: ...the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable."

In contrast to the above statement, in the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho, Bill LeVere, Forest Supervisor, set a precedence that "Installations of fixed climbing anchors, pitons, and slings (six to twelve inch metal implements secured into rock) constitute permanent improvements and violate the 1964 Wilderness Act"

Intermountain Regional Office, Roadless Area Inventory Criteria Guide - 4/9/97

"Roadless Area - An area without any roads which have been constructed or improved, and which are maintained for use and passable by standard passenger vehicles."

BLM, Utah

San Rafael Proposed Off-Highway Vehicle Travel Plan - 1998

"In order to protect wilderness values, as mandated by FLMPA, Section 203, travel by mechanized or motorized vehicles would generally not be allowed within the boundaries of Wilderness Study Areas...."

Forest Service, Utah - 1991

"... eliminate roads causing resource damage and / or are not needed for management ..."

The Wild Utah Forest Campaign and The Wilderness Society

Comments on a Roadless Area review - 1998

"Roadless areas are defined as Literally an area without any improved roads maintained for travel by standard passenger-type vehicles. Any logical interpretation of ‘standard passenger vehicle' does not include specialized trucks such as Jeeps and Hummers."

"In assigning maintenance levels to vehicle ways, the Forest Service has already made some level of determination regarding which routes are driveable by a "standard passenger vehicle" and those that are driveable only by high-clearance vehicles.  In contrast, the Draft Criteria says to start the inventory by considering all roads with maintenance levels 1-5 as ‘improved roads' even though by definition maintenance levels 1and 2 are not maintained for use by standard passenger vehicles."

"Considering the issues at hand as well as case law, we believe that the parsimonious interpretation of ‘standard passenger vehicle' is ‘a 2 wheel drive vehicle that is not high clearance."

"The document describing the inventory criteria includes no description of maintenance classes. Based on our discussion with the Uinta National Forest staff, the decision on whether a route is on the list and what level is attached to a route appears to be arbitrary and open to misuse."

"Additionally, there are inconsistencies in the use of the term ‘road.'  In many places vehicle routes which do not meet the definition of an improved road are referred to as roads."

"As a starting point for validation/update of the roadless area inventory, ‘improved roads' will be interpreted to mean: 1. Roads that have been mechanically constructed for passage of standard passenger vehicles and, 2. that have been regularly maintained for use by standard passenger vehicles and, 3. that have been regularly used by standard passenger vehicles."

Kevin Mueller - Wild Utah Forest Campaign
Suzanne Jones - The Wilderness Society


Decision to Make: The motorized community has to decide in which direction we will go. Motorized vehicle roads, or 4WD roads, exist within a gray definition at the managing agencies. Most "Road" definitions relate to a transportation system designed to haul materials, like lumber, or to give the public access to facilities, like campgrounds. Because roads were used for mining, grazing and timber, they were needed as part of the transportation system. Now that the direction of these agencies is shifting, the need for these road systems is gone, and so the roads will also go. Recreational 4WD roads fall between these "passenger vehicle roads" and what many agencies call "Ways".


Today we can continue to use our 4WD roads even after they become part of a Roadless Inventory, or a new Wilderness Study Area because they do not disqualify lands from wilderness proposal. The Closure groups will maintain that our 4WD roads existence in an area does not disqualify it from wilderness study designation due to definitions of maintenance and construction needed to call them roads. But during planning they call for the closure of our 4WD roads due to their impact to the wilderness characteristics of that very same area.


We can push to have our 4WD roads recognized as "Ways" or "Byways" and get the protection this designation offers by having them become "Designated Routes". This would leave us at risk to changes by the district officials, at their discretion, as to what routes can be part of the designated system.


Or we can develop a National Rating System based on the term "4WD Road" that would become a reference manual for the maintenance and management of these roads. Two benefits are probable from this course. By having a maintenance description that would articulate in laymen terms the characteristics of 4WD roads, it would allow for the recognition of the challenge levels of different 4WD roads. By calling 4WD roads "Roads" it would protect our recreation and public access from inclusion in the restrictive management designations. This second goal will be the hardest, of course, as the Environmental community has already begun working on forcing definitions that neatly include our 4WD roads when wilderness lands are proposed, so they can ultimately exclude our 4WD roads as the management and designation processes move forward.



What's Next: The first obstacle is our own to resolve. We need to develop a National Rating System for 4WD roads that will work for swamp lands, mountains, forests, deserts, and canyon country. It will need to be generic in application, but specific in description. In other words the description for the hardest level should make sense for both mud running in the South and desert running in the West. It would need to describe the characteristics of the 4WD road in terms that someone who couldn't put a 4x4 into four wheel drive would understand. Remember, to most of the people that manage our public lands "lockers front and rear required" means nothing. Even if you explained their operation, they would be hard pressed to differentiate the road characteristics that define this level of 4WD road.


This National Rating System would in no way mean that all the rating systems in use today would have to be consolidated. On the contrary, this National system would be a tool for us to use when dealing with land managers, as it would be written in measurable characteristics, like grade and pitch, which do not require experience to understand. The best part of this approach is that we do not have to continually show the constantly changing personnel what we are looking for in a motorized recreation experience, it would be in a manual at the district office for us to reference. Also, by having a measurable maintenance description, our 4WD roads shouldn't end up bladed to bring them up to "rural" road standards when semi-annual maintenance is required.


The second obstacle will be in getting this Rating System recognized by the managing agencies. I believe that most of the land managers would welcome this kind of a rating system as it would help them better manage motorized recreation by supplying the kinds of experiences that the motorized community is looking for while protecting the resources. The process for creation and recognition of a new manual type will take time to learn. As you can imagine, the environmental community will be against anything that legitimizes our 4WD roads and maintains protection of them. This will be the challenge in the public arena.



The Straw Horse: The first step of this process will be to throw out a draft rating system and begin shaping it into a final product. Input so far has been toward a multiple level rating system with measured descriptions. The question will be if two or three levels would suffice, or if something like five, or maybe ten levels would be better. Maintenance descriptions should be designed for understanding by someone who is unfamiliar with four wheeling. Lets start with a proposal that is 4 levels of challenge. Consider these descriptions and levels and see if they fit into what you have experienced in your own four wheeling. Will they work? If not, what should be changed in order to make the rating system work.



Definitions of Measurement: Other considerations are the number of occurrences of a characteristic that are required for a 4WD road to receive a particular difficulty rating.
Grade - The rise over run, or angle, of the 4WD roadbed measured on an 8 foot span laid inline with the roadbed.
Pitch - The rise over run, or angle, of the 4WD roadbed measured on a 6 foot span laid perpendicular to the roadbed.
Width - The physical width of the 4WD roadbed.
Surface - The material and physical description of the 4WD roadbed.
Obstacle - The measurement of the diameter, height, length, depth, of an obstacle in the 4WD roadbed.





Difficulty Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4
Grade 20 to 30%
(11 to 17 degrees)
30 to 40%
(17 to 22 degrees)
40 to 50%
(22 to 27 degrees)
50% or more
(27 to ??)
Pitch 10 to 20 %
(6 to 11 degrees)
20 to 30%
(11 to 17 degrees)
30 to 40%
(17 to 22 degrees)
(22 degrees)
Width 12 ft. 10 to 12 ft. 8 to 10 ft. 6 to 8 ft.
Surface Improved, gravel, blading, contouring. Natural, some contouring. Natural, some hand placed fill. Natural.
Obstacle Rocks - to 9"
Shelves - to 8"
Water - to 6"
Mud - to 4"
Sand - to 4"
Rocks - 9 to 12"
Shelves - 8 to 16"
Water - 6 to 12"
Mud - 4 to 8"
Sand - 4 to 10"
Rocks - 12 to 16"
Shelves - 16 to 30"
Water - 12 to 24"
Mud - 8 to 16"
Sand - 10 to 20"
Rocks - 16" or more
Shelves - 30" or more
Water - 24" or more
Mud - 16" or more
Sand - 20" or more


What Do You Think:Comments? Is this beneficial to the motorized recreation community? What parts of the rating system make sense? What parts do not? What would you change to make this rating system work for the kind of motorized recreation you do?


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