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for people who care about the West

Can't we all just give a little out on the trail?

  "Can't we all just get along?" With those words Rodney King became the world's most unlikely idealist. Prior to that famous videotape of his beating at the hands of LA's finest, Rodney was not only misbehaving, he was out of control. The man whose violent behavior led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots wondered aloud why people couldn't just behave a little better.


That's an extreme example, of course, but out here in the West many of our public-land debates center on the simple failure to get along. A snowmobiler uses a ski trail, spoiling a quiet day for others. Jet boaters seem oblivious to all but their own pleasure. Mountain bikers zoom down a trail, startling hikers.


Going fast holds no allure for me. I see people on jet boats and snowmobiles and just don't get it "- why come to a quiet place to make noise? That is a large part of the public-land debate these days: Some like noisy and fast, others quiet and slow. In the same place at the same time, the noisy ones always have more fun.


The concept of "multiple use" makes no sense when applied to incompatible simultaneous uses. I don't envy the job of public-land agencies as they struggle to devise rules that keep us apart while at the same time ensuring we have room for all our sports. Since our great grandchildren will need unspoiled land too, many areas of the forests and national parks are currently off limits to motorized use. I think it has to stay that way.


I took my kids fishing one day, unknowingly parking within a hundred feet of a "No Trespassing" sign. When we got back to the car, Fish and Game agents were waiting. As the officer did his paperwork, I brought up the subject of snowmobiles intruding into wilderness areas in Montana. The agents said the problem boiled down to this: They need money from citations to pay the salaries of officers who enforce the law. But once snowmobilers know that Fish and Game people are around, they quit misbehaving (just as I'll never fish that hole again). It's the ripple effect "- the traffic cop by the side of the road has a bigger impact than a speed limit sign.


Yet each year brings more trespassing, more new roads colonized and more pressure to keep all roads open. I watched a debate once between an environmentalist and a snowmobiler about allowing the machines into Yellowstone National Park. The snowmobiler's rationale for his unrestricted travel through the park was simple: He needed to exercise his right to choose, which outweighed any need for restraints. He called it "personal freedom."


That definition of freedom is contradictory because along with freedom comes more need for restraint. If all of us are free to do as we wish, chaos is the result.


The snowmobiler who uses a cross-country ski trail disrupts a quiet day for others. The 4X4 that leaves the road to explore new territory creates a new scar and encourages those who follow to do the same. The jet boater who crosses a fishing line contributes to the flaring tempers and resentments that characterize our public-land debates.


The motorized recreation industry has lobbied our elected officials for more room and fewer restraints on their machines. Recently, the Bush administration overrode an extensive public process and decided not to ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. This is the same lack of respect that has characterized motorized recreation on the trails as it has expanded these past few decades.


We need limits, both public and private. Imposing law from on high is only partially effective if the reason for law is not internalized. The rest has to come from us. It's a good sign that many snowmobile and ATV clubs have already enacted their own codes of ethical behavior and are encouraging their members to police one another. It's a good sign when mountain bikers acknowledge that their disruptive presence often makes hikers uncomfortable.


The conflicts of the modern West are the natural outcome of affluence. We have more time, more money and better technology than our ancestors.


But our ability to go farther and faster through wild lands gives us less privacy. If we quiet folks have to make room for our friends on motorback,then they, too, have to give a little. They must, in the name of freedom, accept the limits we impose on them.

Mark Tokarski is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia,Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Bozeman,Montana.