Keeping natural parks open for America’s recreational sports

Yosemite Falls | National Park Service
Yosemite Falls | National Park Service

WASHINGTON, November 19, 2012 – Talk to any off-road enthusiast or avid sportsman about recent policy rulings on public lands, a 2012 Travel Management Decision on the Santa Fe National Forest, for instance, and you are likely to get a response that is equal parts “piss and vinegar”.

And for good reason; it’s hardly hyperbole to say that recreational access on national forests has been under significant attack in recent years. Trails are being obliterated, roads are being gated and federal policy is swinging dramatically towards further restriction of recreational access.

The term “multiple use forest management” was coined to describe the philosophy of balancing environmental, recreational and economic interests on public lands. In the last decade or so, this balance has continually been skewed, as litigation and political pressure from single-issue lobbyists has caused environmental factors to trump all other issues, sometimes in the face of science and common sense.

I consider myself a conservationist.  I’m a staunch supporter of wildlife conservation, ecosystem preservation and natural resource sustainability.  But I believe these objectives can be attained without a “lock the gate and throw away the key” mentality that has become synonymous with the extreme, and increasingly powerful, environmental lobby.

The environmental movement was born out of well-intentioned desires to reverse the damage of a series of unfortunate 20th century land management practices that ignored sound conservation in favor of short-sighted economic benefits.  Forests were clear cut, fire was eliminated as nature’s own solution to restoration needs, and habitats were haphazardly allowed to deteriorate.

As a society, we were not quick enough to recognize the damage these unsound approaches truly were causing – and because of this, environmental crusaders began gaining traction, which was a good thing at first.

Unfortunately, the pendulum has now swung too far in the other direction, as the well-meaning conservation movement has been co-opted by the so-called “radical environmentalists”, who have assembled a powerful mixture of big money donors and high priced attorneys to achieve their aims.

It is interesting that virtually all of the self-described “environmentalists” that I personally know are a great deal more nuanced and reasonable than the stereotypical “tree hugger” who follows the tone set by the D.C. green lobby.  Similarly, the stereotypes of the forest rec users, such as off-roaders, that paint us all as reckless rednecks hell bent on destruction are also unfortunate.

The truth is that outdoor enthusiasts are truly the front line in the conservation movement, and the vast majority of us use our time on public lands to observe responsible stewardship practices.  I’ve personally become very active in the Tread Lightly campaign and I’ve been heartened at how frequently these practices are intuitively applied by my fellow rec users.

The Forest Service employees at my local Ranger District also say the same thing, that the overwhelming majority of the forest users they encounter are responsible stewards of their public lands.  And as individuals, they most generally share opinions that are favorable towards unfettered access to areas traditionally used by the recreating public.

But despite these sentiments, when many final decisions on travel management are released, the outcome is decidedly unfavorable for recreationists.  Why this disparity?  Well, the truth of the matter is that these large scale decisions, which are distinctly local in their influence, are made with local concerns as only a small portion of the decision making process.  The rest is swallowed up by a complicated means that can be only described as a bloated federal bureaucracy run amok.

Anyone who has taken part in the federal decision making process has walked away with a headache, attempting to understand the convoluted methods on the books for making these often-sweeping decisions.  While there federal decision making laws require that all impacted users can have adequate time to comment and respond to proposed actions, most come away from the process feeling as though their views were hardly considered.

So we as recreation and access advocates have two choices: first we can essentially do nothing, and just continue to howl at the moon about how the “big bad government” is always screwing us over or we can devote ourselves anew to engaging in this debate in an effective, forward-thinking manner.

Sadly, most public land users opt for the first option, but I’ve decided that I’m not going to lay down that easily.  I am dedicating myself to continuing the fight for rational public land access decisions, regardless of whether a good majority of my arguments appear to fall on deaf ears.

I heartily recommend that other public lands users do the same; get active at the local level, attend public meetings on proposed land use actions (the law requires that all decisions go through a public comment period before they can be finalized) and become active in recreational lobby groups in your area (these vary by state, but there are a number of off-road, snowmobile, and other recreation advocacy groups throughout the country).

We cannot simply accept defeat on these issues, or the access we’ve enjoyed in our lives will be lost to our children’s generation.  Our opponents on these issues are well-organized and intensely devoted to their cause.  We must do the same if we are going to return federal land policy to a reasonable, “multi-use” approach that considers recreational land use as a significant piece of the overall pie, instead of an after-thought.


by Jack Payton, written for Communities Digital News   Jack Payton is an outdoor enthusiast, an automotive fanatic and an aspiring persuasive writer. This article is from the archves


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