Click for Coverage
Due to the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation, our website is currently unavailable to visitors from most European countries. We apologize for this inconvenience and encourage you to visit for the latest on new cars, car reviews and news, concept cars and auto show coverage, awards and much more.MOTORTREND.COM
  • JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler

Stop Trail Closings! Are We Losing Ground?

Posted in Project Vehicles on December 1, 2010
Share this

Recreational wheelers are difficult to stereotype. They come from all crawls of life, with independent-mindedness a common denominator. Organizing people who like to think for themselves can be challenging. This makes the opposition's agenda easier to achieve. The so-called environmental groups are better organized and funded than the various, sometimes factionalized, 4x4 organizations. At the government level, the loudest group often appears to be the majority. Our silent majority is running out of time to ensure four-wheeling's future.

The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) has lobbied for automotive rights for decades. Founded in 1997, the SEMA Action Network (SAN) actively recruits automotive enthusiasts to help raise the motorized majority's profile and voting power. Here's an overview of SAN's top issues that affect 4x4 enthusiasts.

Specialty Equipment Legislation
"Street" compliance affects everyone who wants to run plates on their 4x4s. Safety is generally the bottom line, but legislation is often biased toward original equipment. (Coincidentally or not, the government was still General Motors' majority owner at press time.)

Founded by drag-racers and land-speed people, the Specialty Market Equipment Association gets stereotyped as a group of gray-bearded fuzzy-dicers. However, SEMA VP of Communications Peter MacGillivray (far left) got his start as a 4x4 magazine scrub, covering the 1993 Borneo Camel Trophy in this photo.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains the right to set, enforce, and investigate safety performance standards for vehicles and required safety equipment. NHTSA regulations-such as the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS)-affect how aftermarket products that replace required equipment are produced, sold, and used. NHTSA is supposed to base its regulations solely on a product's performance, not its design. However, NHTSA regulations and state vehicle codes aren't always based on physics and real-world data. When proposed laws seem arbitrary and unreasonably restrictive, SEMA lobbies to defeat them. The most-scrutinized 4x4-relevant components are currently lighting, tires and wheels, suspension, and bumper/frame height.

Lift Laws
We're in the middle of an east-to-west, state-by-state series on lift laws. (We'll resume next month with the Midwest.) In the meantime, "monster trucks" on the road incite negative publicity from legislators and the voting population at large. Knee-jerk lift or bumper/frame-height legislation is the unfortunate result. As our lift-law series shows, some states have highly restrictive vehicles codes, ones that often defer to the automakers. (Maine requires the overall diameter of the properly mounted and inflated tire to be "within 2 inches of the range of sizes recommended by the manufacturer for the model vehicle," among other criteria.) Suspension lift and height regulations are often so convoluted that aftermarket manufacturers, 4x4 enthusiasts, and state inspectors are confused about what's permissible.

SEMA lobbies legislators to base proposed laws on applicable engineering data and analysis. The underlying goal is allowing height modifications that are useful for on- and off-road applications. SEMA considers a study done in 1988 to be the most scientific yet because it included GM engineering analysis in addition to data from aftermarket manufacturers. The following guidelines were established as a result of the study.

Frame Heights (measured from the ground to the frame's lowest point between the axles):
4,500 lb & under 24 in
4,501-7,500 lb 26 in
7,501-10,000 lb 28 in

Bumper Heights (measured from the ground to the highest point on the bumper's bottom edge)

GVWR Front Rear
4,500 lb & under 24 in 26 in
4,501-7,500 lb 27 in 29 in
7,501-10,000 lb 28 in 30 in
4WD, dual-wheel trucks 28 in 31 in

Caveat language likely disqualifies "drop" bumpers (extension tubes or plates attached below the main bumper): "For any vehicle with bumpers or attaching components which have been modified or altered from the original manufacturer's design in order to conform with the maximum bumper requirements of this section, the bumper height shall be measured from a level surface to the bottom of the vehicle frame rail at the most forward and rearward points of the frame rail." So, lowering brackets like the ones sometimes included with body-lift kits likely wouldn't legally alter bumper height.

Our cursory check of vehicles with 35- to 37-inch tires showed that all easily complied with the frame standards, but some slightly exceeded the bumper limits. The underlying goal here should be to limit the disparity among light-duty trucks'/SUVs' bumper heights and those of cars. (SEMA stresses that bumper heights vary widely among vehicles on automakers' assembly lines.)

We foresee some enthusiasts bending their frame horns to comply. Structurally sound aftermarket bumper-lowering methods would likely be far safer than DIY torch, welder, or Porta Power frame modifications. SEMA might want to revisit this paragraph in the proposed legislation.

El Dorado County (Northern California) Supervisor Jack Sweeney is one elected official who is also an enthusiast. He's traversing the Rubicon in this image.

Tennessee offers this possible clarification: "In the case of a four-wheel-drive vehicle where the 31-inch [bumper] limitation is exceeded, the vehicle will comply with this section if the vehicle is equipped with a drop bumper. The drop bumper must be bolted and welded to the frame of the vehicle and be made of a strength equal to a stock bumper."

Also, SEMA opposes mandatory tire-height regulations. Instead, bumper and frame heights functionally determine tire height. This supports the current trail trend of the largest possible tires with the least amount of lift to keep a vehicle's center of gravity as low as possible. Enlarged wheelwells are the key.

SEMA also has a Suspension Task Force comprised of key employees from its member manufacturers. This group worked with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to develop "Considerations for Suspension Modification." The results help educate aftermarket manufacturers and tire companies on how various modifications mesh with modern on-board systems such as electronic stability control (ESC).

"Since its introduction, SEMA has regularly recommended and supported the [1988] model to states promulgating raised vehicle standards," said Steve McDonald, SEMA's vice president of government affairs, who is based in Washington, D.C. "We support the model because it was founded on comprehensive OEM engineering analysis and data and because it allows a reasonable opportunity for utility and performance enhancing modifications. When adopted and enforced, the model prohibits unreasonable height modifications. This would include the type of 'monster truck' modifications which have been identified as a leading bane of state regulators."

PhotosView Slideshow

The EPA mandates emissions testing for street-driven vehicles in areas that haven't "attained" the required air quality. States regulate inspection/maintenance (I/M) programs. The seemingly logical approach of measuring acceptable tailpipe output rarely applies. Instead, onboard diagnostics (OBD) testing scans the PCM for emission-related error codes. I/M 240 adds visual inspection of emissions devices, an evaporative emissions test, and a transient drive-cycle exhaust emissions test, all performed while the vehicle runs on rollers.

SEMA's Suspension Task Force encourages technology sharing between the OEs and aftermarket. This Car Sim simulator demonstrates how computer-controlled vehicle systems such as Electronic Stability Control function with aftermarket suspension systems, tires, and wheels.

California, traditionally a leader in legislative trends, subjects emissions-related aftermarket parts to CARB (California Air Resources Board) certification. All applicable aftermarket performance parts must be CARB-approved in order to pass the visual part of the state's smog test for nonexempt vehicles. The EPA recognizes that CARB-certified parts have a "reasonable basis" for compliance outside of California, so obtaining this approval is an ultimate goal for many aftermarket performance parts manufacturers.

SEMA points out that many inspectors mistakenly fail vehicles based solely on the presence of aftermarket engine products. If vehicle inspectors don't understand which modifications are smog-legal and which aren't, how many policymakers likely know the difference between legitimate aftermarket parts and ones that defeat emissions devices?

For diesel-emissions certification, CARB changed its testing procedure from a rear-wheel chassis dynamometer to an engine dyno in 2003. This added significant cost to the process, causing some diesel-performance manufacturers to label their products "Off-Road Use Only" rather than jump through the compliance hoops and costs. SEMA worked with CARB to return to rear-wheel dyno testing this year.

Jim Bramham (past California OHV Commissioner, Past President CA4WDC) chauffeurs a member of California Congressman John Doolittle's staff over the Rubicon. The gives decision-makers a more accurate take on land issues than flyovers.

Further, CARB initiated a Products in Progress List due to its backlog of products awaiting certification. Diesel-performance components placed on this list have a one-year grace period for their manufacturers to complete CARB certifications. Inspectors can't fail a vehicle solely because of an aftermarket product that's on the In Progress list. Truck owners might need to educate inspectors if In Progress parts are on their vehicles.

Regardless, DPF delete products are definitely illegal for street-licensed late-model diesel trucks. California is issuing steep fines for newer diesels caught on the road without their DPFs (the tip-off normally being smoky launches).

SEMA is also lobbying for smog exemptions for low-mileage vehicles and classic vehicles (25 years old and older). Further, new-vehicle emissions inspections are a blatant consumer gouge; SEMA opposes testing these vehicles, which meet stringent EPA standards off the assembly line.

Other Aftermarket Equipment Guidelines
Exhaust: SEMA supports all exhaust modifications that comply with applicable state regulations and objective noise testing procedures.

"Gas Guzzler" Legislation: SEMA favors letting the market determine product viability instead of legislating larger and/or more powerful vehicles out of existence through penalty taxes and/or unattainable fuel-economy standards.

Tire Efficiency: Some states are proposing that replacement tires meet minimum fuel-efficiency standards. Aimed primarily at passenger cars, NHTSA is establishing a federal standard. SEMA successfully got exemptions for brands that don't produce more than 35,000 tires annually and for specific tires that aren't produced in yearly quantities of greater than 15,000.

Lighting: Some states are attempting to restrict aftermarket lights, particularly blue lights, noncompliant HID headlamp conversion systems, LEDs, clear taillamp covers, and marker lamps. SEMA supports the legality of aftermarket lighting products that comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Although marketing unapproved lighting is illegal, DIYers who install these products are not targeted by federal enforcement personnel; non-DOT aftermarket lights might not pass state vehicle inspection.

Land Use
Barring certain groups of taxpayers from "our" land is an emotional issue. Our readers and the off-road parts industry know that organized wheelers maintain existing trails and frequently clean up after (and sometimes rescue) so-called environmentalists in the backcountry.

Roads can be closed by Congress, the Forest Service, or the BLM. Once land is designated as wilderness, it is traversable only by foot or on horseback. The original intent was primarily ecological. The Wilderness Act of 1964 set aside 9 million acres of land. Currently, 110 million acres are designated as wilderness, with up to another 30 million being considered. The wilderness designation now seems more about flexing political power than about ecology.

Luckily, OHV-conscious compromises are becoming part of the process. One is to "cherry-stem" existing roads and trails, grandfathering them in for vehicular travel in a wilderness area. Another solution is a "backcountry" designation, permitting motorized activity on certain remote lands.

The widest-ranging bill was the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act. This law created nearly 2.2 million acres of new wilderness in nine states, including areas in and around Joshua Tree National Park and the Eastern Sierras in California, Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands in Idaho, Mt. Hood in Oregon, Zion National Park in Utah, and the Sabinoso Wilderness in New Mexico.

Millions of acres of "primeval" federal lands are being scrutinized as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) for possible closure. Congress can "release" WSAs that do not meet the wilderness criteria. Existing trails and other evidence of human activity technically disqualify an area for a wilderness designation.

Action Needed
The feds regulate emissions and safety standards, but state and local governments legislate many parameters of vehicle customizing, such as lift heights and equipment inspections.

Wheelers face a double-whammy: Not only is aftermarket equipment under fire, but land closures threaten to severely limit how people can enjoy their 4x4s. Enter the SEMA Action Network (SAN), a coalition of enthusiasts, vehicle clubs, specialty auto parts manufacturers, and people who sell and install aftermarket parts. While SEMA lobbies legislators about proposed automotive laws, SAN's goal is keeping gearhead voters informed about pending legislation and regulations. The organization claims a reach of 30 million automotive enthusiasts. SAN membership is free.

The SAN website is packed with valuable information. It lists proposed equipment legislation and land closures. It also identifies auto-friendly legislators and has suggestions for how to productively communicate with elected officials. Vehicle and parts warranty issues are among the many other relevant topics addressed on the SAN website. We encourage all readers to sign up for SAN's mailing list immediately.

Other OHV Activism
Most wheelers are familiar with the organizations devoted to our cause. SAN embraces these and realizes the importance of presenting a unified voice.

"SEMA has partnered with a number of other land-use organizations in the fight to keep public lands open," says Stuart Gosswein, SEMA's senior director of federal government affairs. "Among many others, the list includes the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), BlueRibbon Coalition (BRC), and Off-Road Business Association (ORBA). The organizations coordinate their activities in order to craft a consistent message. SEMA also hosts a meeting of the North American Motorized Recreation Council (NAMRC) every year at the SEMA Show. NAMRC is an alliance of groups in the motorized recreation community that share information and expertise with the goal of working collectively toward common goals. Membership includes a number of clubs and organizations such as the California Off-Road Vehicle Association (CORVA), East Coast Four Wheel Drive Association, Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association, Southwest Four Wheel Drive Association, and United Four Wheel Drive Associations."

Each off-road/land-use advocacy organization has its own priority list. To our readers, United Four Wheel Drive Associations (UFWDA) is possibly best-known. As the umbrella organization for organized passenger-vehicle off-roading, UFWDA and its member clubs and regional associations around the globe are devoted to preserving and enhancing the 4x4 ownership experience.

No Surprise Canyon: California's most notorious Panamint Valley trail is closed to OHV travel. Other Panamint closures include Stone Canyon, Happy Canyon, and Tuber Canyon.

Information: UFWDA, 800.448.3932,

BlueRibbon Coalition
BRC is another high-profile land-use organization. BlueRibbon Ambassador Del Albright says the organization's current priorities are as follows.

Johnson Valley/Hammers: At press time, OHV groups were awaiting the Environmental Impact Statement from the U.S. Marine Corps. While we support the military, we hope to help them find someplace else to train besides our OHV areas. What's more environmentally insensitive: combat training or recreational off-roading?

Water Quality: The California Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs (CA4WDC), representing state OHV organizations, is working with U.S. Forest Service and other stakeholders to develop a new water-quality management plan within California.

No Tellico: Located in North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest, the Upper Tellico OHV Area has been closed since 2007. BlueRibbon Coalition is one advocacy group that's fighting to reopen the area to OHV recreation.

Lawsuits: BlueRibbon Coalition and CA4WDC are involved with three lawsuits in California involving access in Six Rivers National Forest, WEMO (BLM Desert District area), and four national forests in the south.

Tellico: BlueRibbon Coalition, United Four Wheel Drive Associations, and Southern 4Wheel Drive Association continue to fight in court for reopening Tellico OHV Area.

Information: BRC, 208.237.1008,; CA4WDC, 800.4X4.FUNN,

Off-Road Business Association
ORBA is another organization that educates legislators about motorized recreation. Media Relations and Land Use Director Meg Grossglass forwarded the following hot-button issues.

USDA Forest Service, New Forest Planning Rule: In 2009 the Forest Service began open collaboration to address its current and future needs. ORBA is following this process closely and demands that the service recognize the health and economic benefits of OHV recreation. To comment, go to

S.2921, The California Desert Protection Act: A wide variety of stakeholders were consulted early on in the writing of this bill, including off-roaders, environmentalists, and local residents. S.2921 creates two national monuments that specifically allow OHV use on designated trails. It also proposes several new wilderness areas in which many existing OHV trails are excluded or cherry-stemmed to guarantee future access. Five OHV open areas that are currently only administratively designated for OHV use will be Congressionally designated as such in this bill. ORBA and several other California OHV advocacy organizations worked with Senator Diane Feinstein's office on this bill.

America's Great Outdoor, Listening Sessions: On April 16, 2010, President Obama signed a memorandum establishing the America's Great Outdoor Initiative to promote and support innovative community-level efforts to conserve outdoor spaces and to reconnect Americans to the outdoors. It is extremely important that off-roaders go to these meetings and talk about how OHV recreation brings their families closer, gets their children out of the house, and connects them with nature. Stress that OHV recreation should get more appropriated dollars and that every land management agency should be required to have a comprehensive OHV recreation plan that ensures the future of this valid use of public lands. Management by closure is no longer acceptable. Visit for details.

Information: ORBA, 661.323.1464,

Friends of the Rubicon
FOR is dedicated to preserving the United States' most famous 4x4 trail. Trail Boss Jacquelyne Theisen writes, "Friends of the Rubicon will put over 10,000 volunteer labor hours into the Rubicon Trail over the next two years installing drainage structures, hardening loose soil areas, installing signs, and [doing] a few other trail projects in an effort to comply with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Boards Clean-Up and Abatement Order." In other words, 50 years of deferred maintenance must be accomplished in two years; Work Day help is sorely needed.

Information: Friends of the rubicon,

Multiple Use Information Resource Network
MUIRNet is monitoring the Southern California forest lawsuits of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the West Mojave Management Plan (WEMO). "CBD is also promoting increased wilderness and critical habitat designation, which exclude motorized recreation," writes Managing Editor John Stewart. "CBD is a participant in the Forest Service water-quality management planning, seeking tough restrictions on access to National Forests."

Information: 4x4Wire,; Community ORV Watch, 760.366.9289,; MUIRNet,

Other Groups
California Off-Road Vehicle Association (CORVA)

National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council

North American Motorized Recreation Council (NAMRC)

Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association

Tread Lightly!

PhotosView Slideshow


SEMA Action Network
Washington, DC 20004

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Browse Articles By Vehicle

See Results