No More Excuses: Time to Get Involved
No More Excuses: Time to Get Involved
I am going to stand on my soapbox this month. Every few years, I get the urge to do this. So if you're reading this column this month and expect me to show or tell you how to fold, spindle, or mutilate some part of your vehicle, you might just want to turn to another page. However, if you want to continue four-wheeling on public lands, then please read on.
As motorized recreationalists, we are in great trouble. And it's you, the vehicle owner, who is at fault. What I am referring to are closures of public land. I keep an eye on this not because I write for this magazine, but because my wife and I truly enjoy being able to travel and explore public land. We maintain membership in several national associations, a state association, and even though we haven't been to Moab for three years now, we still maintain our associate membership in the Red Rock 4 Wheelers. I am even president of our local 4x4 club, which every day is getting more politically active in land closure issues. My wife and I spend a lot of time on the trails. As an example, one summer (and summers are way too short in Montana), we put in 49 trail days. No, I am not tooting our own horn-I just want to let you know that we are involved.
I am lucky where I live, as we have lots of public land (both USFS and BLM lands), as well as Montana State land that is available for motorized recreation. For years most of the land was under the policy of "open" if not marked closed. It was a great policy, but it was often abused by lots of user-generated trails in places where trails should not be. Then in the mid-'90s the policy changed to "no crosscountry travel" and more road closures. Roads that were closed were signed "closed." While it is disheartening, a considerable number of these signs got torn down. Quite a few of the closures were and still are seasonal-like only open June 15th to September 1st. OK, we could live with that, because generally speaking the trails were either too muddy or the snow was too deep to travel on them. Some of them were closed for better wildlife management.
Now the Forest Service is implementing a new plan. All roads are closed unless shown on the new travel plan map. No one is quite sure when this new map is going to be out. They were nice enough to give us fair warning and we were asked to suggest routes that should remain open. We discovered roads, long-established roads, shown on USGS topo maps that were not on the Forest Service maps. We submitted these to the planners, but I wonder how many others did, or just said, "Well, someone else will." I even spent some time with one of the major players of this new plan, taking him on the trails and showing him several areas that we wanted to keep open. The ironic thing about this is that while he was in charge of determining what was to be kept open and what was to be closed, he was not from the area and had never been "four wheeling" in his life. Actually, he was pretty impressed with where we could travel, not slipping a tire, and cause only minimal damage to the trail, if that.
A big problem developed: not a lot of motorized users took the time to write, call, or e-mail the Forest Service telling them what roads they would like to see kept open and why. But I will tell you for a fact that organizations like the Sierra Club, Wild Lands CPR, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and other very strongly-organized "green" groups did their homework and spread the word-and guess what? Over half of one of the largest national forests in the nation will now be closed to motorized vehicle travel, including not just additions to existing wilderness areas, but also something called "Wilderness Study Areas" that don't require an act of Congress to pass.
Something that is even worse: I ran into a group of ATVs on a trail a couple of summers ago-an actual organized club, no less, out on a ride. Because I knew that they had not come in on the same trail we were on, I asked one of the members how they had got to this point: "Oh, we came in on such-and-such trail." My remark was, "But that is a closed trail." Yep, he honestly looked me straight on and said, "Sure, but we'll never get caught-we can go just about anyplace we want and not ever get caught." Believe me when I tell you I came really close to hitting him right then. This is not the first encounter that I have had like this. As more and more trails get closed, more illegal activity takes place, which just gives that much more ammunition to the "greens" who say that all motorized activity has to be stopped. There are miles and miles of foot- and horse-only trails available. There are even quite a few motorcycle and ATV trails available. But there is not one, not one, fullsize 4x4-only trail available! What does this say for the four-wheel drive owners? It says you are a lazy bunch of people who won't take the time to express your views on land closures.
As I type this, a major recreational area in the East is now closed. Tellico Recreational Area has been shut down. My understanding is that it is under a two-year temporary shutdown with six alternate plans for future or no future use; however, the Forest Supervisor is recommending complete closure. My experience is that once something is closed, it stays closed. Will this happen to Tellico? Who knows? Why is it closed? I am not exactly sure, but I can hazard several guesses-overuse! "Overuse?" Isn't that what the place is for? Yep, it sure is, but it's getting used to death. For one, it's my understanding that there are not a lot of other places to go four wheeling in the area, so a lot of people make use of the area. That's what happens when you don't fight back for even the smallest of land closures. Now, we have a heavy concentration of vehicles in a relatively small area. There is bound to be lots of land degradation when this happens. Trash! While we all say we don't toss trash on the trail, it somehow gets there. I don't need to go any further on this subject, do I?
Trail closures like this are happening across the country. Keeping the famed Rubicon Trail open is a constant battle. The number one reason, again, is overuse. Right now, all the side trails are closed. You're not allowed to venture more than 25 feet from the centerline of the trail. The once very popular Spider Lake is closed to vehicles due to water pollution, contaminated with human feces due to improper disposal. Since much of the property around Spider Lake is private, the owners have now closed it to the public. I don't blame them. Parts of the Rubicon, I have been told, are now called the TP trail.
The Red Rock 4 Wheelers do an outstanding job of keeping Moab open. They work very hard at it. Most groups would have tossed in the towel years ago with all they have gone through to keep the area open to motorized recreation. It all stems from overuse. While only a small part of that use is illegal, that is what gets the news.
I can understand the frustration of people who get tired of just driving non-challenging routes after spending lots of bucks on a machine capable of doing more, a lot more. The new directive from the forest planner that I mentioned above says that "No challenge routes will be constructed." OK, I guess I can live with that. Roads, especially forest roads, get eroded and over time they become more challenging if no maintenance is done. And with tighter budgets, fewer and fewer roads get maintained. But they also have a policy that says if the road can't be maintained, they either decommission it or put it in "temporary storage." This means they close it! My battle right now is to say, "Leave it open as a natural challenge route." Yes, in some cases there are some water pollution problems for sediment in the creeks, but it's not always the case.
What can be done about trail closures?
Join an association. Google the phrase "off highway vehicle associations" or "4x4 clubs (insert your state)" and you will find plenty to pick from. By joining one, it's a start in keeping areas open. Let's just pick United Four Wheel Drive Associations as an example. They do a really good job of lobbying to keep areas open, but they can't do it without your help. They tell you who to write to and what to say about certain issues. Get involved, or pretty soon the only place you will have to drive your 4x4 is up and down your driveway.