A convert to conservation
It was an experience in the early 1990s that turned Regnerus against off-road vehicles. He had hiked 15 miles into the Gravelly Mountains in the Beaverhead National Forest for the autumn elk hunt. Ever since he was a kid, his favorite ritual had been to scout the high ridgelines with his father and family friends, watching the sun rise and set in complete peace and isolation. Bagging an elk was almost secondary to the tradition of going afield.
That year the silence was broken by ORVs racing through the creek bottoms, spooking animals and leaving treadmarks and ruts across meadows.
On some weekends, he encountered 15 or 20 motorized hunters, some of them arriving Sunday mornings around dawn, shooting an elk and heading home in time to catch the football game on TV.
"I'm not angry, so much as I feel sadness and disappointment," Regnerus says. "Here was an area I had been going into my whole life and the character of the experience changed. It was ruined, if you want to know the truth."
After being flooded with complaints, Beaverhead Forest Supervisor Mark Petroni restricted ORVers to established trails and eventually banned ORV use in the fall. But on other forests in the Northern Rockies, Regnerus says ORVS still run rampant.
Last fall, Regnerus joined the Bozeman-based Predator Project, which recently changed its name to the Predator Conservation Alliance, as the head of the Roads Scholars Project. The project was born in the early 1990s to study road density in grizzly bear recovery zones near Yellowstone National Park and in northern Idaho, Montana and northeastern Washington.
Researchers found that the Forest Service had done a pretty good job of closing roads to protect the bears, says Regnerus, but ORV riders were using the roads anyway.
Last summer, Regnerus organized work parties to help the Forest Service make closed roads impassable. Volunteers dragged rocks and timber across roads and helped mulch and plant trees. Roads Scholars also puts out a brochure that helps citizens report ORV violations.
Regnerus says his biggest challenge has been getting roads into the spotlight.
"The Blue Ribbon Coalition has been very good at mobilizing people by highlighting a threat, which is the potential loss of their riding privileges," he says, but conservationists have been slow to catch on. "There's been very little substantively in Backpacker or Outside, but pick up any snowmobile magazine or publication with a wise-use audience and every issue has an article or fiery letter to the editor."
"The reason that quiet trail users haven't been mobilized is they have taken the trails for granted," Regnerus says. "But advocates of quiet trails need to become political. Otherwise, they are going to lose a lot of the trails they love to motorized use."
* Todd Wilkinson