If you’re not familiar with the latest environmental initiative involving off-road recreation, let’s bring you up to speed: Back in April, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum to create the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, charging the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council for Environmental Quality and the Interior and Agricultural Departments with promoting conservation and outdoor recreation. In the Memorandum, Obama designated three main functions of the Initiative: Outreach to the public—particularly young Americans—by way of several listening sessions, coordination of efforts between the EPA, CEQ, the Departments of Agriculture and Interior and several other federal agencies and, third, reporting of the findings back to Obama by November 15th, 2010. In plain English, the President told these agencies to go hear what the people had to say about conservation, “align policies” within the various agencies and then report back to him with the results. Shortly thereafter, several representatives from Washington hit the road to purportedly “listen to America” about conservation.
Any time that land use is a topic, off-road recreationalists need to make sure that we are as well represented as possible. Several staffers from Dirt Rider attended the America’s Great Outdoors Presidential Listening Session in Los Angeles, California in early July, and we were pleased to see that in addition to environmentalists, equestrians, hikers, conservationists, farmers and landowners, there were more than a few OHV supporters in the crowd from the Blue Ribbon Coalition, ORBA, AMA, the Dirt Diggers Motorcycle Club, AMA District 36/37, NOHVCC and more, as well as individual riders who just wanted to support the sport. Held at Occidental College (which, coincidentally, Obama attended from 1979 to 1981), the Los Angeles listening session began with some very one-sided remarks from LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that, as best described by the Blue Ribbon Coalition’s Don Amador, were “inappropriate and actually detracted from what should have been bipartisan advocacy for the recreation and outdoor goals of the initiative.” Following this, comments were made by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Secretary of the Department of the Interior Ken Salazar, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Nancy Sutley, Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Harris Sherman and Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo-Ellen Darcy. These speeches largely consisted of each individual praising the other speakers in attendance, and then telling the crowd that they were, in the words of Harris Sherman, “eager and committed” to hearing what the public had to say about conservation. Following this, several panelists offered their respective opinions to the crowd, most of which revolved around increased funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Unfortunately, OHV users were not represented among these panelists, although President-elect of the California Cattlemen’s Association Kevin Kester did voice his “concerns of government mandated land use…coming out of D.C.”. Finally—and only after a heartwarming video was shown depicting recreationalists (and, not surprisingly, no off-road vehicles) enjoying the great outdoors— the floor was opened up for the public to speak to the Obama administration officials and the audience members in attendance.
Most of the comments from the 792-person capacity crowd revolved around asking for support and funding for a specific group or cause. From Equestrians to Sierra Clubbers, a wide variety of individuals stood up to speak their minds to the politicians in attendance while simultaneously holding their hands out for funding. This time was short—only about 30 minutes—so the only voice for OHV users belonged to the Off-Road Business Association’s Meg Grossglass, who made an excellent case for off-road recreation in stating that the federal government’s land managers are doing a disservice to recreationalists by not developing a comprehensive OHV recreation plan, despite the fact that there are over one million registered OHVs in California alone. Grossglass’ comments were an accurate representation of two-wheeled recreationalists’ interests, and she received a healthy round of applause when she took her seat. Another speaker who went to bat for OHV users was a lady representing recreational fishing enthusiasts who noted that, like OHV users, the recreational fishing community is working to “come together to find a way to fund” recreation so that current areas are not closed and taken away from the public.
Once the listening session had concluded, a series of facilitated “break-out” sessions served to allow the various agencies to better hear from the various groups in attendance (or to reduce the potency of opposing opinions? You be the judge.) Again, OHV users were represented by the off-roaders like the Dirt Diggers’ Anthony Grierson, who was mainly in attendance out of concern for the 189,000 acres in Johnson Valley that are in danger of being shut down. “As you know, we heard a lot of people and organizations asking for money to help support their causes,” Grierson later said of the listening and breakout sessions. “Not once did I hear any OHV enthusiast ask for money. The one statement that I did hear many times was ‘please don’t take our land away’, as it has been diminishing over the last twenty years. It was said in our [breakout] discussion that we (AMA Districts 36/37) are a self-supporting organization. We survive and work together through volunteerism.” Another off-road user in attendance, Devin Carter, reflected on how the division among various interest groups is creating a confusing rift in the greater goal of simply allowing the American people to enjoy the outdoors. “They want us to teach our kids how to coexist in society, but we can’t all coexist on the trail?” Carter commented after the listening session. “I don’t think [the Federal Government] realizes that there are user groups out there who are responsible and can work together to maintain trails and use them together. I take my kids out mountain biking, and I have to say ‘oh, we can’t ride that trail because they don’t like mountain bikes here’. But then, when they go to school and learn about equality in society, it makes it difficult for them to understand how one group can want to exclude another group from using the outdoors. But if we can somehow get the funding, the backing and the groups together, I think we can make some positive changes in the right direction.”
In viewing the listening session, it was apparent that the odds are not stacked in our favor. Off-road recreationalists have a bad reputation in the environmental community, and it was painfully clear that more than one group in the room would not object to our being shut out of all public lands for good. This just goes to show how imperative it is that OHV users not only stand up and represent our interests but also work actively to show the conservation community that we are not a band of unruly, environment-hating hooligans. The majority of OHV users are respectful, law-abiding citizens who simply want to enjoy the outdoors, and we must all work together to not allow our reputation to be ruined by a handful of irresponsible riders and to help turn back the tidal wave of rules and regulations that are being sprung upon us by better organized, more well-funded groups. If what the Obama Administration officials said is true (and why ever would they lie?), they will be detailing the results of these listening sessions in their November 15th report that will subsequently be delivered to the oval office. That means that, in theory, if OHV users can step up and make sure that they are represented at each of the remaining listening sessions, we have the potential to have our voice brought directly to the desk of the President. Then again, the purpose of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative listening sessions may just be to allow the administration to later say that they heard from “the public” while handing down more regulations and thicker bureaucracy, but only time will really tell how it will play out. Regardless, we have to continue to do our part, and if you haven’t yet participated you need to stop letting others do the dirty work for you and GET INVOLVED! Only through the concentrated effort of all OHV users can we ever have a snowball’s chance in hell of saving our great sport.
It’s no longer a matter of if you want to get involved or not; it is now imperative that you get involved! This can be accomplished by attending one of the remaining listening sessions, as well as by voicing your opinion on the DOI’s online “idea generator”. To learn more, visit www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors/ and www.sharetrails.org/alerts/?alert=1195, then call your friends and suggest that they either get involved as well or start thinking about finding a new weekend hobby.