Motorheads: The new, noisy, organized force in the West

  • Rider on a four-wheeler

    Kawasaki Motors Corp.
  • A precipitous ride down Lions Back near Moab, Utah

    Daniel W. Mick
  • Jerry Abboud works for a motorcycle shop in Denver, Colo.

    Elizabeth Manning
  If off-road vehicle enthusiasts ever build a museum, a statue of former Idaho Gov. John Evans should stand out front, a scowl on his face, and his now-famous saying - -You're politically insignificant' - on the statue's pedestal.


Evans made that remark in 1984 to Clark Collins, an electrician and avid dirt biker who wanted the governor to help keep the public lands open to motorized recreation.


Evans' disdain ate at Collins, who was already angry at the way public land was being closed to people like him. So he set out to prove Evans wrong. Within three years, Collins had formed the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national off-road group based in Pocatello, Idaho. Today, his coalition boasts more than 500,000 constituents plus tight links to gem collectors, fossil hunters and others who feel shut out of public lands.


Similar organizations for jeepers, snowmobilers, all-terrain vehicle riders and dirt bikers have since cropped up all over the West. The clubs vary in philosophy, size and political influence, but almost all were formed because off-road enthusiasts felt powerless as they lost access to public land through wilderness designations and stricter land management.





"You used to be able to take a motorbike anywhere," says Eric Lundquist of the American Motorcyclists Association. That began to change in the 1970s, when two presidential orders, one from Richard Nixon, then another from Jimmy Carter, directed federal land managers to close areas damaged by off-road vehicles. Today, the two agencies that allow the most riding - the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service - are both moving toward permitting motorized recreation only on signed trails in designated areas. "I don't think anyone gets into this sport because they want to be politically active," adds Lundquist. "But you learn you have to be."


They've become good at it. Thanks to legislation forwarded by motorized interests, they are years ahead of other trail users in paying for their use of public land. Most Western states now have pots of money which help build and maintain trails and are kept full from vehicle registration fees and gas taxes. A national fund was established in 1991.


The groups also have friendly ties with federal land managers. They encourage their members to volunteer with land management agencies by adopting public trails and taking over their maintenance, actions that are much appreciated in this era of lean budgets. They even hold "good neighbor" banquets for federal land managers who help further their interests.


As Jerry Abboud, executive director of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, puts it: "We're not the beer-swilling half-wits people think we are."





The process of creep


ORVs have long raised the hackles of environmentalists. It seemed heretical to allow in the backcountry a machine that uses gas, belches exhaust, rips up the land, scares wildlife and shatters the silence. But until recently, most activists were too busy battling mining, logging and grazing to pay serious attention to this feisty new kid on the block.


As director of the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project, Roz McClellan had been more focused on habitat fragmentation caused by logging roads when she suddenly found herself pitted against off-roaders who adamantly opposed new trail restrictions in Colorado's Rio Grande National Forest. She says she's been "electrified" ever since.





"Recreation is being touted as a benign alternative to extraction," says McClellan. "But some of us are seeing it as the new nemesis, a new destructive force for habitat. In some ways it's more insidious than the old foes of logging and mining."


How so? Unlike loggers, ranchers and miners, ORVers are not in decline, says McClellan. Far from it. As outdoor recreationists age and as people have more money than time, a growing number of recreationists are expected to trade in their hiking boots or their horse for a backcountry vehicle. The Forest Service estimates that 130 million ORV trips will be taken nationwide in 2040, up from about 80 million trips in 1987.


Second, if the willingness of ORVers to pay for their use of public lands is music to the ears of land managers, it sounds an alarm to environmentalists, who often view the relationship between open-handed off-roaders and financially strapped land managers as too cozy. Plus, some land managers have incorporated ORVs into their culture. While hiking recently in a Montana wilderness study area, several members of the Montana Wilderness Association were horrified to find a Forest Service ranger patrolling on an ATV. Usually, restrictions are so tight in these areas that mountain bikes and electric toothbrushes are prohibited.


From the environmentalists' perspective, federal land managers are too lax. They claim the agencies either don't have the resources to enforce trail closures, or simply don't want to enforce them. John Gatchell of MWA draws a direct connection between this and the off-roaders' financial contributions to the feds: "Who's making public policy?" he asks. "Right now, Kawasaki, Polaris and Yamaha are. Whatever they make is allowed on public land."


Third, off-road vehicles are harder to monitor than more traditional uses of the land. Since most trail projects are so small, agencies often forego a full environmental analysis, says McClellan. Just as frequently, trails are created informally by repeated use. "Motorized trails occur through a process of creep," says McClellan. "There's no starting point. It's as if a logging sale were assessed tree by tree."





Wilderness is the target


Beyond those headaches, off-road vehicles pose the same threats of erosion, soil compaction and habitat fragmentation that the more traditional resource industries do.


Off-road vehicles can pulverize plants and soil, leaving trails and "play areas' vulnerable to washouts and erosion. They pack underlying dirt as hard as black top, making it difficult for new plants to take root. In rainstorms, paths used to climb hills can quickly deteriorate into gouged-out gullies, filling streams with silt and killing fish.


On this point, environmentalists acknowledge the ORV community is somewhat self-policing. By encouraging their members to stay on trails and by promoting light-on-the-land recreation through the Forest Service concept, Tread Lightly!, off-road groups hope to prevent further road closures by proving that they can use the land responsibly.


Some recreational riders have even joined environmentalists, ranchers and non-motorized hunters and outfitters in asking state wildlife officials and the Forest Service to restrict ATV use during hunting season. Because, as McClellan estimates, as much as 95 percent of the damage caused by ATVs occurs during fall big-game season, the year-round riders are anxious to distance themselves from the carnage. The average trail rider doesn't have much reason to depart from an established route, but a freshly killed elk represents a 300-pound magnet pulling a vehicle into the bush. The ground is also vulnerable in the fall after the first snows soften the ground.


But cooperation between trail riders and environmentalists usually dissolves at the planning level. The past few years have been particularly heated, says McClellan, since the Forest Service is now in the thick of its first 10-year forest plan revisions. In many forests, trail decisions have proved even more contentious than logging quotas.


In western Colorado's Grand Mesa, for example, a consensus approach flopped because the off-road enthusiast consistently disagreed with the seven other people representing other forest uses. After motorized groups appealed the final plan, forest officials said they would consider reopening a third of the trails they just closed. A final decision has not been made.


Another hot spot is the Targhee National Forest in Idaho. Opposition to the draft forest plan led off-road enthusiasts, community leaders, loggers and ranchers to form a group called CUFF, Citizens for a User Friendly Forest. More than 100 people protested last spring, saying that the proposed reduction by 30 percent of motorized roads and trails is too extreme. The final plan is expected next spring.


But what worries environmentalists most about off-road vehicles is the threat they pose to primitive areas.


Roads and trails destroy habitat by breaking it up into small islands, says McClellan. The vehicles themselves spread weeds by carrying seeds in their wheels or undercarriages. They can also scare wildlife or disrupt their natural feeding and mating habits. Other recreationists cause similar problems, but the vehicles' range exacerbates the situation: While a hiker might need six miles of trail for a good day trip, an ATV rider requires at least 30 miles.





"We just got a handle on closing logging roads and now we have this new thing opening them back up," says Gatchell. "It's like a monster. You cut off one head and up comes another."


McClellan and Gatchell believe that some off-road enthusiasts target roadless areas to disqualify them as wilderness so they can't be "locked out" in the future. McClellan names three areas in Colorado that are now laced with motorized trails and probably out of the running for future wilderness designation. In 1977, the Forest Service designated them roadless.


Clark Collins of the Blue Ribbon Coalition denies such accusations. "If they're saying we're going into areas where we haven't been before to disqualify it as wilderness, then that's totally groundless," he says. "But if they're saying we're documenting use in existing areas, then we are guilty of that."


But environmentalists are suing. Twelve groups in Washington state won a lawsuit last July against the Forest Service, stopping the agency from improving motorcycle trails in the Dark Divide Roadless Area of the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest. The Montana Wilderness Association filed a similar lawsuit in October, charging the Forest Service with allowing off-road recreation in seven wilderness study areas.





The proof is on the paper


Meanwhile, both sides are trying to lay claim to as much territory as possible by mapping where they believe motorized routes exist and where they don't. In some cases, federal land managers rely on these maps for information.





"Maps are very powerful," says McClellan. "Maps can become a self-fulfilling prophecy."


In southern Utah, for example, retired engineer Ber Knight maps jeep routes around Moab, Utah. As information officer for the Red Rock Four Wheelers, the jeeping club that hosts Moab's Easter Jeep Safari, he started out by mapping routes for the event. Since then, he's inventoried nearly all the roads in Emery and Grand counties. After plotting some 2,500 miles of roads, he believes 95 percent are "machine-made," not carved from repeated jeep use.


Some 230 miles away in Salt Lake City, Gordon Swenson, a retired lawyer and member of the Utah Wilderness Coalition, is mapping the desert to disprove the existence of some roads that Utah counties say exist inside BLM wilderness study areas. There have been a few absurd examples, he says, such as a "road" in the North Escalante Canyon Wilderness Study Area which turns into a waterfall, plus another one in the San Rafael Reef area which is actually a navigable waterway. While mapping, he says, he's noticed plenty of fresh vehicle tracks inside WSAs.





A "matter of culture'


Who are off-road enthusiasts and what makes them so committed? At first glance, they're just as diverse as any group of recreationists.


Retired Forest Service engineer Bill Sutton, for example, likes nothing better than riding on his ATV through Colorado forests, alone except for his dog, who perches between two milk crates behind him. Clark Collins usually takes excursions with family members in tow. He boasts four generations in the sport, ranging from his 5-year-old granddaughter, who owns a tiny flak jacket and a mini dirt bike with training wheels, to his septuagenarian parents, who ride ATVs and snowmobiles. Sutton's friend, banker Kim Kokesh, now rides ATVs instead of horses with his wife.


And Wayne Young, a wealthy dentist from Orem, Utah, rides more for the challenge. He's learned to do "tricks' with his Jeep on slickrock near Moab - tricks such as scaling rock faces so steep a rock climber might use a rope. "I like tense, close things," he says. "That's why dentistry and four-wheeling go together."


But most off-road enthusiasts share a few values besides a passion for the sport. One is a love of freedom.





"You're free to go as fast as you want, take this trail or that, stop when you want to," says Mel Quale, a veteran dirt biker and member of the Magic Valley Trail Machine Association. "It's a feeling that you're in control of your own doing at that time. You're reinforcing that you have skills and abilities. It's almost intoxicating. You say, "Yeah, I may be 60 years old, but I feel like I did when I was 20." "


That feeling is partly why sport utility vehicles, like Range Rovers and Ford Explorers, are so popular these days. One of Young's friends from Moab, Dan Mick, earns $150-$300 a day showing wealthy people from places like Miami, New York and Los Angeles what their Range Rovers can do. "More and more people are buying sport utility vehicles and they want to try them out on weekends," says Mick. "We go out and test man and machine."


Money is another unifying force. In Utah, for example, the average off-roading family spends $8,000 per year. At nearly $6,000 for a racing ATV like the Yamaha Banshee, or almost $1,500 for a kid's dirt bike, the Peewee 50, the sport comes with a built-in financial commitment.


A third common factor - perhaps the strongest among committed riders - is a general dislike of the desingation of land as "wilderness' and a distrust of environmentalists. "Off-road enthusiasts don't necessarily see eye to eye on everything," says Quale, "but we try to downplay our differences because we know we're facing a much bigger enemy with the national environmental groups."


It's ironic for such a hi-tech sport, but many ORVers talk about custom and culture just as passionately as any fifth-generation rancher might. It's a clash of values, similar to the rift between ranchers and environmentalists, says Ralph Maughan, a political scientist from Idaho, who sparred with Collins of the Blue Ribbon Coalition over wilderness designations in the 1980s. The off-road enthusiasts have pretty much aligned with the Republican party, he adds, just as environmentalists did with the Democrats.


At the heart of the mistrust is a perceived class difference. Studies show that even though they're well-off, off-road enthusiasts are more likely to be mechanics or heavy equipment operators than lawyers or doctors. "Most of us think more blue collar," says Quale. "We're down-home folks. We do consider environmentalists to be elitists. It's just a different culture."


Many off-road enthusiasts also feel singled out by environmentalists. They say no matter how responsible they become, some critics still won't be satisfied.





"Philosophically, they say we don't belong on public lands," says Abboud of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition. "But we pay our own way and we have lots of families who ride. What I don't understand is why people dislike us just because of who we are. I wish they'd step off the moral high ground and work with us, rather than targeting us as some damnable freak of nature."





"We're asking that no more public lands get closed off," says Dana Bell of the American Motorcyclists Association. "We're also asking for a quality experience. Riding down a graded dirt road is not fun. We're looking for scenic opportunity, to get away from the crowds. We don't want to be relegated to play pits or exiled to a sandbox."


John Trammell, an environmentalist who works for Trout Unlimited in Colorado, ponders his feelings about ORVs from the top of the Uncompaghre Plateau, a forest riddled with motorized trails. He says he could learn to share trails with ORVs because he fears the alternative: the Balkanization of the forest into hundreds of specialized trail uses.


Still, he can't get over the feeling that off-road enthusiasts lack legitimacy. "Off-road enthusiasts don't love the forest as much as I do. If they did, they would not want to create motorized routes," he says. "The day will come when I can't pack an elk out after a hunt. When that day comes, I won't think I'm entitled to a motorized prosthesis. I'll stay at home, read books, listen to music and tie my flies."


Truce


Given the chasm between the two groups, how can land managers ever hope to negotiate their differences?


One idea is to not give up. Deb Rawhouser, national trails coordinator for the BLM, says her agency is trying to get motorized recreationists and their critics to understand each other better. One event she's planning is a rally where off-road enthusiasts try hiking or walking, while foot-users get behind a wheel.


She says some consensus efforts have worked, especially if discussions stay focused on trails rather than drifting into the more ethereal realm of values. On Colorado's Vail Pass, for example, the Forest Service successfully worked out a truce between snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. Both groups accepted limitations and agreed to peacefully share a few common trails.


Another, more controversial solution, is to charge user fees for all users of public land. Then the agencies would know beyond a doubt which use was most popular in a certain area, and could react accordingly.





"The incentive right now is not to sit down and cooperate," says Oregon-based free-market economist Randal O'Toole. "It's to demonize the opposition. Until we get user fees for off-road vehicles and all other users, then it's going to continue to be a political situation."


California has already moved towards a different market solution. With money from its annual $30 million ORV program, the state purchased five private recreational areas devoted exclusively to the sport. The off-road enthusiasts seem happy with the areas, and environmentalists are happy to have them bounded.


Even harsh critics like Gatchell are happy to see private areas relieve the burden on public land. But to him, the issue is more fundamental: "If federal land managers make room for every machine man invents, there won't be any backcountry left. Should we have to fight for every inch of the forest?"





Elizabeth Manning is assistant editor for High Country News. Former HCN intern Greg Hanscom contributed to this report.