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How to Be a Trail Access Advocate

Posted in Features on September 18, 2017
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Photographers: Chris Marzonie

At some point while out exploring in your Jeep, you will come to a “Road Closed” sign on a trail. Maybe you just got into four-wheeling, and you decide you need to learn more about where to go. Or maybe this was a trail you have wheeled on since you were a kid, and suddenly there is a locked gate on it. Either way, it dawns on you that somewhere, someone is making decisions about the places where you get to recreate. How do you get a say in that?

Though most four-wheeling east of the Rocky Mountains is relegated to private land, in the west we are endowed with a vast amount of public land on which to venture. Without going too deeply into federal mandates and the way our government works, suffice to say that much of public land use policy boils down to this: those who show up make the rules.

To make a difference, you must get involved. Following are three things you can do, distilled down from a conglomeration of my personal experiences, input from public land officials, and an entertaining telephone interview with Del Albright, Ambassador for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, one of the most respected public land access organizations in the U.S.

First, set the example. Learn the rules. All Forests and Bureau of Land Management districts have useful websites for gleaning current rules and conditions. But, you can pretty much follow these guidelines anywhere:
1. Stay on the trail.
2. Don’t leave trash. If anything, pick up trash.
3. Don’t drink and drive.
4. Obey all posted signs and conditions, road closed signs, campfire bans, etc.

If you wheel long enough, you will come to one of these. Do you know why it’s closed? Do you know who manages the gate? It is worth the time to understand the different land uses and management practices of your local trails.

Taking the good example a step further, act as an ambassador for the trail—if you see someone doing something that gets trails closed, either intentionally or unintentionally, speak up. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt that they really just don’t know, not that they are deliberately doing something that will get trails closed. It can be challenging to do so without the situation becoming confrontational. I usually try a soft approach, like “I have a lot of extra trash bags with me—happy to give you one if you need it for all that stuff.” Or “Hey buddy, I just saw the ranger headed this way; driving outside the established trail gets you a big, fat ticket, and it might get the trail closed, too.”

The next thing you can do, according to Del Albright of Blue Ribbon Coalition, is join the organizations that make sense to you. There are many different clubs and organizations with different focus and flavor. Start at your local club level—join at least one that you like and pay attention. Join a state and or national-level organization for land use education and advocacy such as Tread Lightly!, Blue Ribbon Coalition, or the United Four Wheel Drive Association, just to name a few I see out there doing good work on a regular basis.

Finally, speak up. Show up. Write letters. Attend meetings. Get on the email list for your local clubs, forests, county and state parks, etc. Educate yourself on the areas that interest you, and reach out to others to ask questions about roads and trails and the laws that govern them. Develop working relationships with other people and interested parties to understand their viewpoints, so that cooperative progress can be made to effectively create solutions that represent a reasonable balance of all interests.

All of this may not sound as fun as working on our rigs or wheeling all weekend, but as Stuart Bourdon said when discussing this column, “It’s the inglorious reality of being an off-road enthusiast.” And every little bit helps.

There is strength in numbers. This group of people came together on National Public Lands Day to raise awareness of an intended trail closure. It was not a typical trail closure—the intent was to close the trail to the public, but leave it open for one commercial tour company to use exclusively. This had never occurred in any forest of which I was aware, and we were concerned about the precedent it would set. The feedback of 42 people was enough to persuade the Forest Service to change the decision. Soldier Pass will be reopened to the public by a daily permit system—a compromise, certainly, but still a win in my opinion.
When the USFS announced that it intended to close the Soldier Pass Trail to the public, but leave it open for one commercial tour operator to use exclusively, this group of private Jeeps gathered peacefully for a run to demonstrate how to responsibly use the trail.
I painted “Keep Soldier Pass Open” on the windshield of my GPW that is parked in front of my shop, and it generated a lot of interest and opportunity for discussion to raise awareness of the situation. The key to successful support of your cause is a clear message and logical facts to support it, not just impassioned sensationalism. In this case, never before had a trail been closed to the public, but kept open for a single commercial tour company. It was a precedent we did not want to see occur.
Trail cleanups are an important way to not only give back for the privilege of using public land, but offer a great opportunity to meet other interested clubs and groups, as well as get to know your local public land managers.
Photo: Chris Marzonie
State Trust Land, BLM, USFS or private land—do you know where you are wheeling? Many clubs host runs to help educate members about different land use types, responsible trail use, and 4x4 safety. Find a local club that fits your style of exploring and recreating.
Cooperation is the key to getting real on-the-ground work done. Amina Sena of the USFS describes some road maintenance completed through collaboration from the USFS, commercial tour companies, and local non-profit clubs and organizations. No one entity had the resources to complete the task independently—it was accomplished through successful teamwork.

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