Recreational Access and Conservation

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Dedicated to conservation and multiple use of public lands for recreation opportunities.

Edited by: John Stewart

Public? Or Prohibited?

A Look at OHV Use and Impact

By: Ray Ashba

When you hear the words ORV, Offroad or Four-Wheeler, what comes to mind? For many, it's an image of a pollution spewing, earth-ravaging machine laying waste to beautiful wild land. If you see this image, do you believe it to be a fact? Unfortunately, many do. While that is a tragedy in itself, the reason you believe it is far more appalling.

For decades environmental activists have used Hollywood drama and showmanship to pull at the heartstrings of the American people. You notice, I said 'activists' and not environmental conservationist. It is a surprise to most people to learn there is a difference. The largest surprise being that the recreational OHV users are conservationists. The recreational community does depend on unimproved dirt roads, not paved highways for their recreational pursuits. This is where the Sierra Club and other environmental advocacy groups scream foul, and bombard politicians and the public with gross generalizations and horrific stories about ORV's. While environmental activists use the term ORV - Off Road Vehicle, the recreational community identifies with the term OHV - Off Highway Vehicle. I hope to shed some TRUE light on the subject.

Most advocacy groups claim they are "backed by overwhelming public support" and display large membership numbers and long lists of supporters for land closure bills. For instance, one recent online petition favoring the closure of public lands to road access, the Sierra Club claimed that its entire 650,000 members were for the new bill. Yet, the online petition support numbers were in the mere thousands. What happened to these people? Do they not care about their "public" lands enough to vote on a simple online petition? When challenged about these claims of support, we never see the actual numbers. Instead we get claims like:

"67 percent of respondents want ORV's prohibited in the undeveloped 'roadless' areas of our National Forests; or, 55 percent thought ORV's should be prohibited everywhere in National Forests."

How many people were surveyed? What was the method of selection of survey population? Which demographic did the data come from? Was this a poll of the Sierra Club membership of over 650,000? We never see this information.

In a recent simple Public Opinion Poll by MSNBC, the response was quite different.

"Where do you stand on the 'roadless' rule enacted by the Clinton administration?"

* 13477 responses: I'm for it - 31%; I'm against - 69%; Can't decide - 0%

What is it that they are hiding? In response, many recreation organizations are running their own petitions and polls; but, with full disclosure of the signatures and data.

In response to the large membership numbers, many have cited that the advocacy groups are double counting when asked where the data came from. They count the paid member dues in the organizations and add the numbers. The problem is, most people belong to more than one organization; therefore, instead of outcries numbering in the millions; it is the same core group of people being counted two or three or more times.

Advocacy groups claim that "ORVs have damaged every kind of ecosystem found in the United States...In some cases the wounds will heal naturally; in others they will last for millennia."

This stems from a late 70's White House report that in the lengths of this enormous document, the advocacy groups were able to find one quote that they use as the poster child of the environmental impact of OHV's.

They make examples of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a beautiful crystal clear lake that is being over run with algae and silt from the surrounding river basin. Advocacy groups are placing blame on a road built back in the 1850's known as the Rubicon Road and other multiple use Forest Service roads and, as a solution, demanding closure of the forest roads. The Rubicon Road is mainly bed rock and one proposal is it be gated off to prevent further erosion and silting of soils into Lake Tahoe. The flaw in this is simply that OHV use on this road has little, if no effect, on Lake Tahoe. The largest contributor to the algae and silt problem is not OHV's, but fertilizer and silt runoff from the explosion of developments along Lake Tahoe's shores. Instead of placing limits on pesticides and fertilizers and more erosion control at construction and development sites, OHV's get the blame from a road that has been in use for over a hundred years. Why is it OHV's are the fall guy? Maybe it has something to do with the advocates agenda and not real scientific data? One seldom cited Forest Service study determined that loss of wetlands where streams once flowed before reaching Lake Tahoe is the primary cause of the algae and silt problem. These wetlands provided a natural 'filter' to trap silt before it reached the lake. In place of these wetlands are stores, homes and roads that make up the developed communities surrounding Lake Tahoe.

The Santa Rosa Mountains rise above Palm Springs, California and have been designated a reserve to protect the Peninsular subspecies of Desert Bighorn Sheep. A park display exhibit about the Desert Bighorn Sheep describes how they are dwindling in numbers due to habitat loss, the encroachment of human settlements, and, of course, number one on the list, the use of ORV's in the desert. In stark contradiction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan for the Peninsular Desert Bighorn Sheep lists the number one cause of dwindling population on disease contracted from domestic sheep and cattle. The domestic herds are carriers and not effected but the disease is fatal to the Bighorn Sheep.

The historic range of the Desert Bighorn Sheep covered from sea level to over 14,000 in the entire southwest ranging from the alpine meadows of the Colorado Rockies to the deserts of Southern California. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management still allow domestic cattle and sheep grazing permits in Bighorn Sheep ranges. Many of these permits are for areas which have been closed to OHV recreation to 'protect' the Bighorn Sheep. So again, advocacy groups have used OHV's as the fall guy. Seems like there is a hidden agenda of not protecting the environment but restricting access to public lands and eradicating a recreational use of public lands. So, where do these 'facts' on OHV's come from?

Previously mentioned was that recreational OHV users are actually conservationist themselves. This may be shocking, but many groups like the Blue Ribbon Coalition, TreadLightly!, United Four Wheel Drive Association, and other regional and state associations, local clubs, and individual users aid our public lands everyday. The associations and clubs participate in Adopt-A-Trail Programs to maintain and improve trails on public lands used by motorized and non-motorized recreation along with other conservation programs that benefit the public lands and the wildlife inhabitants.

Recreation use aside, the mere existence of unimproved roads and trails is beneficial. They are used by land managers, fire crews, and emergency vehicles to gain access to areas with no improved roads. Wildlife use them as natural runs. They act as fire breaks restricting the spread of forest fires. They give direct access to nature for ALL of the public to enjoy and gain respect for the environment. Unimproved roads and trails on public lands are vital access to public lands that would otherwise be locked away from the public and left unmanged to burn, suffer disease and provide little collective benefit to society.

Most users stay on the trails and observe the 'Tread Lightly!' principles, leaving the area better than they found it. The extreme few who abuse these tenets are shown as representatives of the whole. Many recreation OHV users have lengthy professional and volunteer backgrounds in environmental and conservation organizations and still enjoy the use of OHV's. Does this mean they do not care about the environment? Must they actively denounce all environmental and wildlife concerns brought up by the 'Greenies'? The answer to these questions is a resounding NO. The essence of silviculture and conservation is to preserve the resources we have: Outdoor Recreation, Wildlife, Timber, Space, Asthetics. A true conservationist values all these. If the idea that restricting access to our PUBLIC resources stops us from 'disturbing' nature, one needs to look around to find one example of humans NOT effecting their environment in some way. It's a fact of life. We are here and we are going to change things; deliberately or not. We have a RIGHT to use our public lands in a responsible manner that preserves the resources for continued future use.

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