January 22nd, 2004, 09:15
From the NY Times - Making Tracks, Making Enemies
DRIVING; Making Tracks, Making Enemies
By JASON TANZ
IN her two years as chief ranger at the Wharton State Forest, a stretch of more than 115,000 acres of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Carmel Capoferri has seen her share of illegal activity. She has stumbled upon dead bodies and recovered stolen cars. But one group of criminals plagues her most: drivers of all-terrain vehicles.
Driving A.T.V.'s, the lightweight, heavy-horsepower thrill machines that have exploded in popularity the last decade, is forbidden on any state-owned land in New Jersey. Still, Ms. Capoferri said one drizzly afternoon, ''I've probably caught an A.T.V. on every road in this park.'' A quick pass through the preserve revealed a hill riddled with beer cans and A.T.V. tracks, the deep ruts digging into the soil and exposing the fragile roots of white and scrub pines. Nearby, a strip of barren land had been cleared with a type of high-powered lawn mower to make a new path. ''Look at this,'' Ms. Capoferri said as she surveyed the damage. ''This is horrible.''
She is not the only one who thinks so. Ed Waldheim refers to scofflaw off-roaders as ''idiots'' and ''morons.'' But Mr. Waldheim isn't a park ranger. He is president of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, a man who has delighted in riding dirt bikes the last 30 years and who continues to tool his Honda X400 in the Mojave Desert near California City, Calif., two or three times a week. Nevertheless, he has had it with the law breakers, he said. ''I talk to law enforcement and say, 'Let me shoot 'em.' ''
Another front has opened in the land-use war. For more than four decades, greenies and gearheads have been battling in parks, courts and state houses across the country over off-roading on public lands. But factions among off-roaders, a group that includes A.T.V. riders, four-by-four enthusiasts, snowmobilers and motorcyclists, are also squaring off.
On one side are self-styled responsible off-roaders, usually members of local clubs that promote following existing land-use rules and minimizing environmental impact. On the other are the renegades, who see such an approach as environmental appeasement.
Loren Shirk, for example, a networking engineer in Duarte, Calif., doesn't keep to the designated trails when he drives his Chevy Blazer over the sand dunes near Barstow, Calif., he said. ''I think my right to go where I want should not be hampered by the whims of somebody else that wants to leave the world looking like it was 40,000 years ago,'' he said. ''If I'm out there just playing around, and I'm not hurting anybody or anything, I don't care what the sign says.'' Of the argument that he should play by the rules, he said, ''The way you succeed in life is to go outside the lines.''
Thrill-seeking Americans have been driving motorized vehicles through wilderness areas since the end of World War II, when jeeps and dirt bikes first became available to general consumers. But it wasn't until 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to regulate the activity, that the government took an active role in managing its impact. Today, a hodgepodge of agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, determine which of their lands are off limits to off-roaders, creating a byzantine system of restrictions that vary from state to state and even from park to park.
Indeed, off-roading is now among the most politically volatile land-use issues in the country. Off-roaders and environmentalists have been arguing for decades, for instance, whether the presence of an endangered tortoise justifies restricting millions of acres of the Mojave Desert in California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. The Bush administration has been trying to undo limits on snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park that were put in place by President Bill Clinton. In Florida, drivers of swamp buggies have sued to overturn a plan by the National Park Service to restrict access to the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Meanwhile, over the last few decades the popularity of off-roading has exploded. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade organization, sales of off-highway motorcycles increased 146 percent from 1998 to 2002, while Americans bought 847,000 A.T.V.'s in 2002, up from 447,000 four years before. According to the latest estimates by the Forest Service, almost 36 million Americans use off-highway vehicles, a figure that does not include sport utility vehicles.
And with that increase in numbers, many officials said, has come a related increase in illegal activity -- fences demolished, signs torn down, off-limit areas traversed and public drunkenness. While some of this may be because of ignorance, some law enforcement officials say a growing rebelliousness among off-roaders is the chief culprit. ''We've got a lot more of a lawless element,'' said Barry Nelson, chief ranger for the Bureau of Land Management in Barstow. ''There's a total mindset and mentality of defiance. And it's growing.'' While many off-roaders argue that the law-breakers comprise a tiny minority of their ranks -- Don Amador, the western representative for the BlueRibbon Coalition, an off-road advocacy group, said illegal riders accounted for ''1 or 2 percent'' of all off-road activity -- some law enforcement officials, most environmentalists and even some off-roading fans said that the figure was much higher. Mr. Nelson put it somewhere from 15 to 20 percent in his jurisdiction.
And the land isn't the only victim. This May, Tracy Stites, a conservation officer for the Division of Fish and Wildlife of the New Jersey Environmental Protection Department, responded to a complaint by a farmer in Fairfield Township that A.T.V.-ers were driving through his hay fields. When Mr. Stites stepped out of his car and signaled to one A.T.V.-er to stop, he said, the driver plowed into him, breaking one of his legs and tearing two ligaments. The Cumberland County prosecutor, Ronald Casella, said he planned to file charges. Kevin McCann, a lawyer for the driver, said it was an accident.
''When it's an A.T.V. issue, we've learned that we can't go out alone,'' said Ms. Capoferri, the New Jersey ranger. ''Many of us have been assaulted.''
Harald Pietschmann, who has led off-road expeditions on the Rubicon Trail in Northern California for 20 years, said that he worried that a small band of ne'er-do-wells was threatening the sport he loved. ''They drive over bushes and kill parts of nature. They also tend to break down, so that spills oil. And then of course there's drinking and loud music involved,'' he said. ''It's not pretty.''
Many off-roaders say that the obnoxious behavior had overshadowed efforts by off-road clubs to organize cleanups of popular trails and teach their members techniques -- moving fallen trees off the trails instead of driving around them, for instance -- to minimize ecological impact. In 1990, Tread Lightly, a program formed by the Forest Service to promote responsible off-roading, became a private nonprofit organization, managed and financed by companies like Ford Motor and Toyota. Today, Tread Lightly leads awareness workshops and restores trails. ''Our mission is to empower people to enjoy the outdoors responsibly,'' said Lori Davis, the president.
''I think the majority of people who use motorized vehicles believe in the concept and the ethic of Tread Lightly,'' Ms. Davis said.
Clearly, she hasn't been talking to the sport's more libertarian fans. ''I think Tread Lightly is just a veiled form of extreme environmentalism,'' said Brad Lark, publisher of extreme4x4.com, a Web site devoted to off-roading. ''They spend more time supporting the land closures than they do keeping the land open and opening up closed lands,'' he said.
A writer on the Web site off-road.com, writing as ''Davey the Endangered Desert Tortoise,'' expressed a similar view with less subtlety in a February 2002 column: ''I don't Tread Lightly. I trample. From tree-huggers to their totalitarian signage that follows. I trample all in the path of freedom's future.''
The writer continued, ''I don't tread lightly on treason, and that's exactly what the Greenies are hereby accused of when they take a stab at our America's freedom -- my family's freedom -- to enjoy the outdoors.'' (Brad Ullrich, the site's land-use editor, described the column as ''tongue in cheek.'')
T HE renegade riders draw on a rich legacy of what Mr. Shirk, the Barstow sand-dune off-roader, referred to as ''civil disobedience'' to inspire their activities. One of the best-loved characters in off-road folklore is the Phantom Duck of the Desert, a motorcycle fanatic (real name: Louis McKey) who from the mid-1970's to 2000 was the host of protest rides through the Mojave Desert after the Bureau of Land Management stopped approving permits for a popular dirt bike race from Barstow to Las Vegas. And in 2000, two years after the Forest Service declared the South Canyon Road outside of Elko, Nev., off limits, outraged off-roaders and other land-use activists nationwide descended on the town to participate in what they called a shovel brigade, chanting ''freedom'' as they removed a 10,000-pound boulder blocking the path's entrance. (The Forest Service has prepared an environmental impact statement and should determine the fate of the road by March.)
But the renegades don't always restrict their fire to government officials. Mr. Pietschmann said that two years ago he confronted a fellow driver who had left the designated trail to go around a stalled vehicle.
''I approached him and said, 'This is not a good idea. You're trampling the area, and this will lead possibly to its closure,' '' Mr. Pietschmann said. In response, he said, the man pulled out a handgun and demanded that Mr. Pietschmann step away from his car. Mr. Pietschmann said that he backed up but continued to talk to him.
''That's when he shot at me,'' Mr. Pietschmann said. The bullet missed, he said, and he decided to end the conversation. But Mr. Waldheim of the California off-roaders association said that he doubted whether the continuing skirmish within the off-road community will end so bloodlessly.
''It's a rebellion against the continued erosion of our off-road opportunities on public land,'' he said. ''We are getting very close to the point where anarchy will take over.''
January 22nd, 2004 09:15
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