When I was a newspaper reporter covering Lake Tahoe environmental issues, spokesmen for off-roaders thought I was biased against them.
They were probably right. Ive never cared much for noisy machines that shred the natural quiet that keeps us grounded in today's mechanized, too-busy world. Nor do I hold with the licentious, all-about-me attitude of some of the more vocal off-roaders that freedom means the right to do whatever you want, anywhere, anytime, and the consequences be damned.
But I wasnt as biased as the off-roaders thought. I never went as far as the late, great Barry Goldwater, who was reputed to have called all-terrain vehicles Japans revenge for Hiroshima.
My Tahoe days were two decades ago. Since then, the popularity of off-road vehicles has exploded and the machines have become more powerful. Theyre prowling through forests, crashing through streams, and roaring across deserts.
And theyre very hard to keep out of places where they shouldnt go. Last week, a group of federal retirees called Rangers for Responsible Recreation released results of a mailed survey of federal recreation officials. The majority of respondents said ORVs represent a serious enforcement problem and that damage from out-of-control thrill-seekers is increasing on public lands.
Retired Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Furnish said the survey results reflect "the overwhelming nature of ORV problems on public lands vast landscapes, a deeply entrenched pattern of abuse, far too little enforcement, and soft penalties."
The survey sample was self-selecting, so the numbers should not be viewed as gospel. Nevertheless, the land agencies know that the underlying problem is real. Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth called unmanaged recreation one of four threats to Americas national forests.
The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are fleshing out a policy to confine off-road vehicles to designated roads and trails. If they can make the policy stick with rigorous enforcement, then the agencies' approach might strike a balance that allows for motorized recreation in appropriate areas.
But the enforcement job will be very difficult. Its one thing to enforce permit conditions for, say, a timber harvest or oil well on public lands. The project sites are not going to move from place to place. Theyre controlled by large, easily identified companies. And most will want to play ball with enforcement-minded agencies because regulatory certainty means getting on with the job of making money.
But off-road vehicles are small, numerous, and highly mobile. The riders motives are not to make money but to have a good time. Unfortunately, renegade elements in the off-road community have equated having a good time with nuisance behavior that damages property and stirs up conflicts with other recreationists.
The Forest Service and BLM need resources and a no-nonsense, law-and-order attitude to police motorized recreation effectively. But from what Ive seen, Im from Missouri on this issue. Count me a skeptic until the agencies demonstrate, on the ground, that they can protect public lands from abuse.
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