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for people who care about the West

Motorized recreation belongs in the backcountry

  I’ve had motorcycles in some form, on-or-off-road, since I was 11 years old. That’s how I went fishing or just exploring, dodging logging trucks as I gallivanted through the Flathead National Forest in Montana. It was, and still is, great fun; try it sometime.

That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with motorized recreation. Most things worth having — motorcycles, guns, automobiles, ORVs, chainsaws, power tools, snowmobiles, cell phones — all share a common trait. Stupid people shouldn’t have them, and there’s the rub.

Only a small number of recreationists of any kind — especially dummies — belong to organized groups that try to teach responsible behavior outdoors. For example, while there are 65 million gun owners, fewer than five million actively defend their rights as National Rifle Association members. On a smaller scale, the same reality faces motorized recreation advocacy groups such as the BlueRibbon Coalition, to which I proudly belong.

Like the NRA, groups like the BlueRibbon Coalition, based in Pocatello, Idaho, the American Motorcyclist Association and many smaller clubs spend a lot of money on educational efforts. BlueRibbon has jumped in with both feet on damping down noise from our vehicles, a position I agree with. There is also the "Tread Lightly" campaign, which seems a nice way of saying, "Don’t Be Stupid."

Manufacturers such as American Honda are a bit more blunt, running safety ads themed: "Stupid Hurts." Really. From what I’ve seen, most of us aren’t stupid when we recreate, and many are helpful. Locally based wheel-sport clubs have donated hundreds and thousands of hours on the ground for trail maintenance and repair. But I suppose our organizations will keep growing our efforts to reach the unreachable, and yes, the lazy. We’d have it no other way: It’s the right thing to do.

But now, it seems, another challenge looms. In April, on last year’s Earth Day, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about the four "great issues" facing today’s Forest Service. Bosworth did not talk about the usual environmental bugaboos of grazing, mining and logging. After all, those other multiple uses on the public lands are pretty much gone, much to the regret of many Westerners, myself included. So what’s next?

Fire and fuels, invasive species, habitat fragmentation, and, said the agency chief, "unmanaged recreation." As someone who has lived in sight of Forest Service land pretty much all my adult life, I’ve got lots to say about each. But since Chief Bosworth specifically stated, "OHV use alone affects more imperiled species than logging and logging roads combined," it’s kind of obvious which fan the fertilizer will hit next.

Chief Bosworth’s talk added urgency to a long-running debate among motorheads. In a nutshell: Do we compromise with our critics, or change our credo from "Tread Lightly" to "Don’t Tread on Me"? Must we fight fang-and-claw against every closure, every restriction?

I’m with the fang-and-claw faction. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the chief of the Forest Service would someday declare motorized recreation a "peril." But I never imagined that the log trucks (and my logger neighbors) would disappear, either.

What happened? Well, as my friend Bill Sutton puts it in every issue of his off-road recreation newsletter: "Stay on the road, smile at the hikers, eat a good breakfast, don’t pick your nose, and it will not make any difference to the greenies. They don’t like you." Sadly, I think Bill is right.

Selfish environmentalists seem to think "multiple use" means two people hiking the same trail. They want to get rid of logging, mining, cattle and any recreation that doesn’t meet their pristine standards. That I washed my bike before loading up to prevent seed spread, that I have a quiet muffler, that I stay on the trails (that I’ve helped maintain), that I wear safety equipment, and that I use a hanky won’t make any difference, ever.

To uncompromising critics, I and 36 million other motorheads, like the loggers, ranchers and miners who literally "have gone before" from the public lands, are not to be lived with but eliminated. The rights of all Americans to use and enjoy their public lands in a responsible manner don’t matter.

Well, those rights matter to me. They should matter to everyone. And they dang sure better matter to Chief Bosworth.

Dave Skinner writes and rides in Whitefish, Montana.