This idea will probably strike some people as outrageous. But what the hey, progress rarely comes easily.
The Wilderness Society, a behemoth in the environmental movement, has been running a help-wanted ad. It's looking to hire a "Public Lands Recreation Policy Advisor." Anyone taking that job, which is based in the group's Washington, D.C., headquarters, would help shape "national policy direction for off-road vehicles ... and recreation issues on public lands."
I just want to let The Wilderness Society know, I'm available; in fact, consider this my application. But if I got the job, I'd make sure to steer the group in a new direction based on a whole new strategy.
This is what I would do: In the big off-road driving gatherings this summer — on sand dunes and dirt trails and other challenging terrain on public land around the West, where motorheads roar around on souped-up ATVs and dirt bikes and Mad Max Jeeps — I'd show up in a huge pickup truck, towing a trailer loaded with powerful machines that carry The Wilderness Society logo.
I'd be accompanied by a team of professional off-road drivers wearing black leather and helmets also emblazoned with The Wilderness Society logo. We'd join the crowd of our usual opponents, who are getting their jollies and showing off their adrenaline and testosterone by riding motors. And we would excel at their sport.
Then, next winter, when snowmobilers have their big gatherings to demonstrate their powder-climbing skills, I'd show up with The Wilderness Society's new crack snowmobile team.
If that sounds too politically incorrect for an environmental group to stomach, I'll back off just a notch by having all my Wilderness Society machines powered by eco-friendly alternative fuels or batteries — as long as we can get the horsepower we need to get some kicks and show off.
All this might cost some serious money, but it's bound to be cheaper than The Wilderness Society's near-constant barrage of mass-mailings and press releases about the sins of off-road drivers who take delight in trespassing in wilderness areas or tearing up other wildlife habitat.
And I think it would be make for far more effective public relations than the attempts of most environmental groups. Because all their "alerts" merely preach to an approving choir while revealing to the rest of the world an irritating and monotonous holier-than-thou tone.
I would show the motorheads that many wilderness advocates understand that driving ATVs and snowmobiles is fun and exciting and requires real skills. Some wilderness advocates can probably drive to the top of that dune or snowy slope faster than overweight, beer-befuddled drivers who hate wilderness. But I would even make sure to have some overweight beer–drinkers on The Wilderness Society teams.
My message would serve as a challenge to stereotypes: We're not green wusses who react out of knee-jerk opposition to machines. We stand for wilderness protection without being elitists who condemn the whole motorhead community. We clearly encourage responsible off-road driving in areas where it's appropriate.
That would effectively drive a wedge into the motorheads' community, isolating their knee-jerk ideologues who are against all regulations and all wilderness, while building bridges to their reasonable people.
My idea doesn't mean giving up The Wilderness Society's goals of protecting wilderness, wildlife habitat and opportunities for non-motorized recreation. The idea is to present an image and a movement that gets beyond prejudice, staking out shared values.
Some environmental groups are trying this idea already in less controversial ways as they run eco-friendly ranches and eco-friendly logging, making some headway by showing those communities that all environmentalists are not the enemy.
I'd also like to see the Sierra Club run an eco-friendly mine to show the mining community that it can be done with no pollution of water or air. Imagine burly miners in green-T-shirts operating huge machines fueled by garden compost. I'd also like to see the National Wildlife Federation set up an eco-friendly drilling rig. I'm not sure how that would work, but I bet it's somewhere within the realm of possibility, just to show that there are green roughnecks out there.
The wilderness movement tends toward absolutes. It would certainly benefit from adopting a "we have things in common" strategy, especially if it's presented in an outrageously theatrical way. Let's rev it up!
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior editor in Bozeman, Montana.