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.
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
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
"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
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
The process of
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
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
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
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."
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
Wilderness is the
Beyond those headaches, off-road vehicles
pose the same threats of erosion, soil compaction and habitat
fragmentation that the more traditional resource industries
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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
"Maps are very
powerful," says McClellan. "Maps can become a self-fulfilling
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.
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
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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
is assistant editor for High Country News. Former HCN intern Greg
Hanscom contributed to this report.