The revolution will be motorized

  • Jen Jackson


Growing threats of violence; increasing rage; calls to restore liberty by throwing off unjust and unconstitutional government rule. The voices of the angry are loud, and they're likely coming soon to a BLM Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service office near you.

The issue that inspires this fury is closing roads through public lands. It makes me ask: Does a Sunday drive merit all this outrage? Do we have so few problems in this recession-rattled, deeply divided country that access to roads is worth this war of words?

Here in Moab, Utah, a group called the Sagebrush Coalition recently formed to protect the motorized access that already exists on federal lands. They've held public meetings, met with BLM and Forest Service personnel and promoted their message in the local newspaper. Their rallying cries at gatherings include, "We want our public lands open!" and "They're ours -- take them back!"

At issue is the federal government's authority to manage, and, more specifically, accept or decommission roads. The matter is currently coming to a head across the West as numerous BLM field offices update their resource management plans. These plans, in part, determine what routes remain open for travel. In addition, the Forest Service is complying with the 2005 Travel Management Rule, which required each national forest to designate which roads are acceptable for motorized use. We desperately need updated management plans. Existing management documents were drafted 20 or more years ago - well before the current explosion in motorized recreation.

To some critics, however, the new plans have conspiracy and tyranny written all over them. One Colorado resident said at a hearing that land-management agencies are restricting public access so the Chinese can take over mineral rights promised to them as payment for U.S. debts. Another Coloradan, Doug Maxwell, told the Denver Post: "The Forest Service has no right to enforce any laws. They can't enforce laws unless they are deputized by the county sheriff." Maxwell has been sitting in protest outside the public lands office near Dolores with a sign reading "Road Closures = a Step Toward Tyranny."

Here in Moab, Dave Cozzens, a member of Moab's Sagebrush Coalition, was quoted at a recent meeting saying that, while he doesn't advocate violence against BLM employees, "if this stuff continues, that will happen. That will be a natural result of what they're doing."

In Colorado, Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell agrees with that sentiment. He told the Cortez Journal: "If a Forest Service personnel is attacked, I will do everything in my power to protect them, but, at the same time, I think they are really bringing it on themselves."

Let's be honest: Government tyranny is not the issue here. We've got more than enough roads in our backcountry to please drivers, and some roads should never have been created in the first place; they're in wetlands or in other inappropriate places. It is exactly the responsibility of government to decide which roads to keep and which ones to close. Better late than never. The alternative is anarchy, a spaghetti-like mess of haphazard, illegal roads.

Talking tough doesn't help; intimidation usually backfires. The truth is that public lands are still largely accessible. The Resource Management Plan for the BLM's Moab Field Office, for instance, left 3,693 miles of roads open for full-size vehicles, with an additional 300 miles of track strictly for motorcycles or ATVs. This is the equivalent mileage of making a roundtrip from Seattle to Chicago. Furthermore, the routes closed were those that damaged the land and served no special purpose, according to public comments. The agency's recreation planner also pointed out that those roads whose only stated value was "fun" remained open.

I understand that locals don't appreciate "outsiders" managing their backyards and prohibiting what's been acceptable for decades. For many people, road closures probably represent all the frustrating things in life that can't be controlled; they signify unwelcome change and uncertainty.

Yet even as I try to understand why people talk openly about the need for armed protests, I still find it pointless and  distracting.  Life in the West has already changed, probably forever. Recreation on our public lands is booming, and everybody wants a piece of the federal estate . Meanwhile, office-bound bureaucrats are ill-equipped to rationally manage millions of acres of in-demand public land.

So while I, too, hate the added restrictions coming our way in this new era of resource management, I believe that they're necessary. What we are witnessing, like it or not, is the natural evolution of a recreation boom, and road rage, however well-organized, won't hold it at bay.

Jen Jackson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She writes and runs chainsaws in Moab, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

George Winters
George Winters Subscriber
Jun 14, 2011 01:11 PM
There are additional complications not mentioned in the article. Even thought the Forest Service, BLM and Park Service are very small items in the federal budget, the financial squeeze from above can have big impacts on their budgets. The Forest Service has already been seeing less money for normal annual maintenance.

When natural events such as storms and fires add new challenges to the maintenance plan, the process gets very challenging.

The fact is that the complicated planning that tries to address a huge array of environmental and cultural issues further depletes the funding and further strains the realm of comprimise.

One can respond that the system is still accessible even if one cannot drive the road, but many people are going to find it difficult to add an extra day of hiking at each end of their backpacking trip. Even an environmental lawyer may have trouble taking an extra two days for her summer high country traverse and thus she may wish that the road was open.

Not only are the ends of the spectrum of users polarized, but many of us are probably individually at odds with our own set of priorities if we honestly look at the real implications that each of our preferences will create.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Jun 14, 2011 01:43 PM
I think the real point is there are still 4000 miles(!) of road open, but these guys still want more. There are limits to everything, including natural resources, and the reason we have a government in the first place is to (hopefully) fairly allocate those resources. But these "sagebrush rebellion" types don't care, they all think the world should respond immediately and without question to their wants and needs, and everybody else can go screw. The violence-excusing rhetoric coming out of these supposed law enforcement officials is especially disturbing. Those people have no business in law enforcement in this day and age.
Ryan Taylor
Ryan Taylor
Jun 15, 2011 03:33 PM
Luckily, the right to have motorized routes is equal to that of having non-motorized recreation. It's about balancing that multiple use vision. The blowhards get the press on both sides of the spectrum, but for the most part common-sense prevails in the end.

That said, unfortunately it's much easier for a non-authorized motorized route to affect non-motorized backcountry users than vice versa... I haven't heard too many Jeep/ATV users complain there's too many hikers out there...
Carolyn Hopper
Carolyn Hopper
Jun 17, 2011 02:55 PM
While I feel this is, for the most part well-written about a complicated issue concerned with entitlements, I take issue with the word " hate" when it comes to changes in regulations. We all will have to make changes if we want any wilderness or natural places where the hand of man is none, little or light.
There are reams of pages concerning the value of outdoor experiences, time spent with Nature on pieces of land big, small or tiny. If the motorized community could admit for one second or with a very few words that most of the recognize that what they do in one place affects more than just them--there are too many pictures available of the damage done across the country and into Canada.
What gets my goat is when the motorized community try to make the issue about the poor, the aged, the infirm as a reason to make more roads open to motorized use. That is, for the most part a red herring. (Sorry to mix metaphors) . I'm very tired of the motorized community crying about needing more room for noise and land abuse.
Yes we alll have equal rights to land abuse, but what if we are supposed to do better and not leave the land worse off than when we found it.
No one is ever going to be able to create more of the natural world unless it's showing pictures of what could be lost on an i pod or pad or whatever else will come along.
Larry Audsley
Larry Audsley
Jun 21, 2011 02:24 PM
Travel management for BLM and national forest lands is a long overdue opportunity to resolve long-standing issues and conflicts. I only wish both sides would refrain from the usual trash talk and generalities about the other side. There are blowhards on both sides of the issue, as Ms. Jackson has just demonstrated. This is the time to be talking about balancing access needs with habitat protection, not other people. How about a little research and thoughtful analysis, or am I expecting too much from HCN?
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Jun 21, 2011 02:56 PM
Larry, this is an ESSAY. It is not a hard news article. Therefore your comment is not only rude, it is ignorant.
Carolyn Hopper
Carolyn Hopper
Jun 21, 2011 04:06 PM
HCN does do lots of research - their writers do a lot of research. This is a thorny issue and an opinion was expressed.
Trashing HCN doesn't help either the motorized community, the world community, the entire Natural world which is being trashed by humans, and anyone who chooses to understand how completely we are tied to the the earth, and by the way, the oceans--which are dying.
Martin Evans
Martin Evans Subscriber
Jun 21, 2011 04:36 PM
Here in cascadia, simply leaving roads alone in not an option. The options are remove them, pay for their maintenance, or watch them slide into the rivers, where the "outsiders" downstream have to drink them. The Forest Service roads are mostly dead ends that were built to move timber out one time. Of the 4000 miles in Mt. Hood National Forest, maybe 1000 miles "access" anything, including the most remote trailheads. So if people want roads to remain open, I suggest they get out their wallets, because freedom isn't free.
Christina Quigley
Christina Quigley
Jul 12, 2011 11:26 PM
Amen, sister!
Christina Quigley
Christina Quigley
Jul 12, 2011 11:37 PM
BTW, Larry, this is an ESSAY (research definition) for a blog and not an HCN news article.
Larry Audsley
Larry Audsley
Jul 13, 2011 09:27 AM
For some, maybe HCN's "essays" appear to reflect research. To me they do not.

On the lands in question, what are distances between roads and what is the nature of the land - flat and easily walkable, or so steep that it takes an hour to hike one mile?

What types of "roads" are being closed? Temporary roads that were created for special purposes such as timber harvest or fighting a specific fire some time ago? And are these "roads" now grassed over with young trees trying to grow back? If so, these are not permanent roads, and people should not be driving on them unless analysis shows they are needed to provide reasonable access. In those rare cases, the Forest Service and BLM should designate recognize their purpose and assign them a number in the system.

The principal reason for the travel management rule is that in the last 20 years we've seen the appearance of a new type of vehicle that is specifically designed to be ridden where there are no roads. Advertisements for ATVs (and even some SUVs) suggest that the fun really begins where the road ends. That's OK in the eastern U.S. where the land quickly repairs itself, but out West it doesn't work. After one vehicle ventures off road and leaves a trail, others take the same "trail" and we start getting user-created roads. That has to stop, and travel management is the tool to accomplish that.

I fully support travel management, but I also support reasonable access to reach trailheads and for game retrieval. (Don't tell me hunters need to get off the roads and walk. Some do hug the roads, but these individuals skew the public image of hunters because they are the most visible to the public. I've packed deer and elk meat out of places most roadless activists will never even see.)

Many of us also want dispersed camping. I don't want to leave the city to camp in what amounts to a mobile home park. Travel management should provide those opportunities as well, and the plan I've seen in the Southwest do that.

Finally, let's examine the premise that our public lands are experiencing a recreation "boom." It's been my understanding that most forms of outdoor recreation, and that includes backpacking as well as hunting and fishing, are experiencing decline, and that participants are an aging population. Could someone go get the stats (US Fish & Wildlife and the forest service collects some stats, as do national parks), so that we can all at least start from the same set of facts?
Christina Quigley
Christina Quigley
Jul 13, 2011 12:07 PM
Hi Larry,
While I agree with you on some ideas, I disagree with you on others. I consider the "WOTR" blog a separate identity from HCN, where journalists and writers can express their opinion in a more relaxed way. I am a writer, so perhaps I am better able to understand the difference between a news article and a blog essay.

I disagree with you in your idea that anywhere it takes 1 hour to hike 1 mile there should be a road. That is a ridiculous idea. Areas that steep should probably not have a road, as it could potentially negatively and severely affect the environment by erosion.

Second, it is preposterous to think that anyone and everyone should follow the shallow ideals expressed in ATV commercials. ATV companies are just trying to make a buck, and their commercials are capitalism with disregard to the environment at it's finest. I would hope that people can use common sense and rationality post viewing an ATV commercial.

I spent over half my life for work and for pleasure in the deserts and forests of the west. I have yet to see folks unable to access a trailhead due to the exclusion of a road to the trailhead.

Last, you seem to desire enforcement of travel management plans, as well as dispersed camping, etc. These things can only be accomplished with a larger budget for the land management agencies. Unfortunately, folks keep voting folks into congress who do not care about the outdoors and are continuously cutting funding for land management agencies. Dispersed camping and law enforcement of travel management plans require more people to be hired - patrols, law enforcement officers, recreation technicians, etc. The budget for land management agencies is EXTREMELY low right now, so there are many job positions not being filled, simply because congress does not allow funding for agencies to hire. SO.....unemployment remains extremely high and travel management plans are not enforced, campgrounds to to hell, dispersed camping areas go to hell, and the eyes of the forests and deserts are unemployed because there is a freeze on hiring. Thanks, Congress!!
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
Jul 13, 2011 12:16 PM
Thanks for all your comments, Christina, Larry, and everyone else who's chimed in here. Just to clarify, Christina's description of our essays (Writers on the Range) is correct. They're not exhaustively-researched news stories, they're opinion pieces in which writers express their particular viewpoint on a topic. A viewpoint expressed in an essay, or in a blog post on The Range, represents only the perspective of its author, not that of HCN. Thanks again for joining in discussion about those viewpoints. Sincerely, Jodi Peterson, High Country News Managing Editor
Larry Audsley
Larry Audsley
Jul 13, 2011 12:55 PM
So much confusion, so little time.

First, I did not say there needs to be a road EVERYWHERE the terrain requires an hour to hike a mile. I just said the terrain should be a consideration. Some places could have roads four miles apart. There are also places that people seldom visit because it takes hours to get there. It's fine to keep some of those that way too.

I can't imagine how anyone could read what I wrote and feel I need to informed that "it's preposterous to think that anyone and everyone should follow the shall ideals expressed in ATV commercials." I thought my feelings about that were pretty clear.

Essays should contain facts and logic if they're to worth anything. It would be worthwhile to write an essay that explains what travel management is and is not designed to do, and analyzes how various stakeholders might be affected, and why a few on both sides of the issue will probably need to suck it up just a bit.

Part of the reason the land management agencies can't provide adequate enforcement is because they're stuck in the office writing and re-writing management plans and giving depostions for legal proceedings. If Congress appropriated more money, I'm not sure how much if any would be used for enforcement. Instead it would probably go for surveys and feel-good activities aimed at pleasing the non-profits who profit from attacking the agencies and convincing donors that the natural world will be irretrievably lost unless they write them a check today.

Both sides of this issue are guilty of sensationalism and trying to turn what should be a land management discussion into a political brawl. As a paying subscriber, I'm asking HCN to reject "blogs" that focus mainly on the behavior and beliefs of people on the other side of the issue and do nothing to clarify the substance of the conflict. I can get "blogs" like this in the reader comments section of any on-line newspaper.
Christina Quigley
Christina Quigley
Jul 13, 2011 05:27 PM
As a writer, I disagree with you. There is a wide spectrum of essay and literary writing out there. To insist that every essay should be written as a term paper is ludicrous. "Essays should contain facts and logic if they're to worth anything???" Essays can contain facts and logic. Essays can contain humour. Essays can contain opinions. Essays can even include fiction and sensationalism. Essays can include mystery. Essays can be spiritual. The list goes on and on. I completely and wholeheartedly disagree with you. Jen Jackson has just as much right to have an opinion as you do. If you don't like it, don't read her essays, and don't read blogs. Stick to news stories. The New York Times, Associated Press and many other turn out "facts and logic" on a daily basis, so go read a newspaper. Stick with the HCN magazine and skip the blogs if you don't like it. I enjoy hearing a sense of humor and someone else's opinion. Adding anymore comments to this is a waste of my time. I have much to learn, read and write.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Jul 13, 2011 05:35 PM
Here's an essay, exhaustively researched:
The Grizzly bear
He'll give you a scare
or if it's a female she will
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Jul 13, 2011 05:37 PM
P.S. If a land management discussion isn't a political brawl, I don't know what else you'd call it. And if you think it's worthwhile to write an essay, you should.