Flashing red and blue lights sent me a strong message: I was busted. I’d just passed a truck as I drove into a small, southwestern Oregon town and neglected to slow down to 30 mph. I got a ticket.
Deterrents work, yet there are places where deterrents don’t reach, and drivers of all-terrain vehicles know this all too well. There’s not enough money to pay for effective policing on our Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, and the sad result is that you can’t find a desert or forest that hasn’t been trashed by lawless drivers with destructive streaks.
Here’s a local example near my home in southwestern Oregon: There’s a parcel of BLM land that we call the Green Tops. It’s outstanding winter range for blacktail deer and Roosevelt elk, and it has abundant quail and wild turkeys, along with poison oak. As a boy, I planted pine trees on its slopes for science class, hunted squirrels below those trees, and once packed out a 25-pound rock as a gift for my mom (at that age I didn’t consider the potential legal issues and so didn’t consult with a lawyer). A 12-year-old can hike to the top in about 50 minutes.
But that’s too much work for some people. Recently, “mud-boggers” -- drivers of huge, tricked-out pickups with big tires -- plundered Green Tops. In 2006, the damage was so bad that BLM shut down the area to all motorized use. It was not a day too soon. I took advantage of the new peace and quiet, hiked up near the top last May and shot a nice turkey. Along the way, I was troubled by what had become of my childhood stomping grounds. All-terrain vehicle trails had torn up the meadows and deeply rutted the slopes; piles of beer cans and cartons, broken glass, washing machines, cut-up fences, and other assorted garbage was strewn everywhere. We always hear that “it’s a small minority of people that do this damage.” That may be true, but a small number of careless or reckless people can do a whole lot of damage, especially with nobody there to witness it. In the West, it’s not unheard of for one game warden to have the job of policing over 4,000 square miles of territory.
This spring in the Klamath Basin, Oregon State Police finally caught a band of mud-boggers who’d ripped up one of the best redband trout spawning streams. The stream had only recently been rehabilitated from widespread damage done to it in the past.
We hear the excuses: “ATVs allow the old and physically limited to hunt or explore our public lands.” I am all for responsible access, but the 60,000-plus miles of Forest Service roads in Oregon provide lots of choices for access. Besides, as any game warden will tell you, nine out of 10 folks on ATVs or driving those big pickups are healthy men in their 30s, fully capable of walking.
Sadly, every time people hunt illegally from their ATVs, trash our public lands just for fun, or use high-tech doodads on their rifles that violate fair chase, they give animal-rights activists and the non-hunting public more reason to condemn hunting. Today's craze for high-tech all-terrain vehicles has completely altered the way I enjoy the outdoors. I rarely hunt on weekends anymore, choosing instead to burn valuable vacation days during the week. I cherish the time I hunt with my children, and want them to understand how traditional and meaningful it is, but I don’t want to subject them to weekend mayhem. Hunting’s not supposed to be easy; it’s about deserving your kill.
Folks who abuse public land certainly understand the language of heavy fines, arrest, lost hunting privileges, or confiscated vehicles. If states required license plates for ATVs, that would guarantee better accountability. And responsible sportsmen must insist that our state and federal agencies fund more law enforcement so our hard-working and over-extended game wardens can be more effective. It’s also up to us to attend public meetings when travel management plans come up, write letters and get involved. If we don’t, my kids and yours will lose what is everyone’s birthright – our magnificent public lands.
Meanwhile, I’ve been driving a little more carefully after that county sheriff slapped me with my well-deserved speeding ticket. Deterrents work.
Mike Beagle is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a former U.S. Army officer and high school teacher and coach who now works with sportsmen for Trout Unlimited’s Public Lands Initiative. He lives near Eagle Point, Oregon.