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for people who care about the West

A gutsy activist challenges a powerful industry

California off-roaders kiss their unregulated days good-bye


She just wanted some peace and quiet in the woods, but after a 15-year campaign, a California homeowner has almost single-handedly forced the state of California to better regulate its off-road recreationists.

Karen Schambach didn't intend to become a reformer when she moved to California's Sierra foothills in 1984. But one spring day six months into construction of her cabin in El Dorado County, Schambach was startled by the buzzing of dirt-bike riders just yards away. Asking what local authorities could do to keep the bikes out of earshot, Schambach learned that off-road trails in California are monitored by the state's Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) division.

Over the years, Schambach became convinced that the agency wasn't paying attention. The OHV division also seemed to be causing more environmental damage than it prevented and getting more than its fair share of California gas-tax money. Schambach did research and last year delivered a report to the state of California documenting abuses.

Along the way, Schambach says, she's made enemies in her hometown. Resentful off-roaders have sent her threatening mail, buzzed her house with motorcycles, mashed her street sign, and even showed up with guns on the road to her property.

Schambach's report says the commission in control of the OHV agency has always been stacked with off-road enthusiasts, so that it rarely enforced its environmental regulations. What's more, those regulations were never circulated, so they remained unavailable to the public.

Schambach also found that the OHV division used faulty logic to secure its funding, at the taxpayer's expense. The program was designed to be funded by off-roaders themselves, through the sale of registration decals.

"After only a year, they found the sticker money wasn't enough. From then on, (the program started getting) 1 percent of the state gas tax - about $35 million a year," she says.

Today, 80 percent of the funding for the OHV program comes from taxes on gasoline. At the same time, say off-road enthusiasts, no other sport supports an industry worth $5 billion annually. There are 120 official off-highway recreation areas in California, with 100,000 miles of trail for sport driving.

But Schambach says that when trail managers maintain OHV trails with bulldozers, erosion begins. Water eventually digs new channels in trails, and washes fill dirt down to creeks.

Getting some attention

Convinced the OHV program had to be reined in, Schambach sued the agency last year. "Since we (couldn't) appeal to their conscience ... or to their sense of stewardship, we thought we'd try an appeal to their pocketbooks," Schambach says. "Getting sued got their attention."

Don Amador, one of the state's seven OHV division commissioners, says of Schambach's report, "Almost every sentence has some sort of fabrication or lie in it."

But even the OHV program's deputy director, Dave Widell, concedes the agency has always been "kind of controlled, or owned by, the users," without enough involvement by environmentalists and homeowners. Schambach says Widell is making changes.

The OHV program's environmental regulations are no longer "underground," but are being rewritten and offered for public comment, Schambach says. Deputy Director Widell says there's also a new gas tax study in the works, and that the commission will no longer be dominated by off-road enthusiasts.

Schambach's work has earned her a reputation in other states; she says orders for copies of her report are coming in from all over the country.

Jacob Smith, who works for Colorado's Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads, says Schambach's report has become a model for environmental groups nationwide; their strategy is to get all the environmental impact and funding researching into one document so that lawmakers can see if OHV agencies are doing their job.

While Smith says, "Nobody has done as thorough an analysis of this issue as Karen," Schambach says her opinion of off-roaders has changed.

"I guess I used to be one of those people who wish the sport would just disappear. Now, I see the sport just needs to be managed."

Joshua Chaffin is a freelance journalist in Sacramento, California.

For further reading ...

  • Copies of Karen Schambach's report, California Off-Highway Vehicles: In the Money and Out-of-Control, can be ordered for $10 each from the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, P.O. Box 603, Georgetown, CA 95634.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Joshua Chaffin