By Rob Hotakainen
WASHINGTON - Motorcyclists and ATV riders are revved up by a Republican plan that would remove restrictions on motorized access to 43 million acres of public land nationwide, while environmentalists say it would be a big mistake.
It's part of a broader debate on Capitol Hill over whether Congress should move to increase recreational opportunities on the nation's vast holdings of public land.
"Our public lands are intended to be multi-use in order to give the public full access to America's great outdoors," said Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Hastings and other critics have long complained that current federal policies put far too much land off limits for motorized access, making it impossible for motorcyclists and snowmobilers to take their vehicles to remote wilderness areas.
Opponents of the legislation say it eventually could lead to opening up more public land to oil and gas extraction, mining and logging, among other things.
Jim Akenson of Joseph, Ore., the executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonprofit conservation group, told a House subcommittee Wednesday that "there are plenty of places to ride off-road vehicles" on public lands.
"However," he said, "we must also have places-big, wild habitat-that is completely separate from the noise and disturbance that comes from motorized traffic. ... Once our backcountry is gone, there's no getting it back."
Testifying before the Natural Resources' subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, representatives of off-highway vehicle groups from around the nation said it's time for Congress to loosen up the restrictions as a way to help their industry and the economy at the same time.
Dick Lepley, the owner of a dealership called Street Track 'N Trail in Conneaut Lake, PA, and the executive director of the Pennsylvania Off-Highway Vehicle Association, said his dealership employs 50 people and pays more than $2 million in state and federal taxes in a good year.
"Clearly, the power sports industry contributes mightily to the nation's economy during both good times and bad, but regardless of the economy, nothing threatens dealerships and the industry at large like having no place to ride," Lepley said.
And Karen Umphress, a Minnesota recreational trail activist, said that in 2010 there were more than 360,000 off-highway vehicles registered in her state. Noting that Minnesota is the home to the headquarters of both Polaris and Arctic Cat, companies that make both snowmobiles and ATVs, Umphress said off-highway vehicles are used for everything from berry-picking and hunting and trapping to serving as replacements for cars.
"They are an important part of the lifestyle, culture and tourism within the state," she said.
The bill's chief sponsor is the House's third-ranked Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California. When he introduced the legislation, McCarthy said that "millions of acres of land across the United States are being held under lock and key unnecessarily." He said his plan "is just common sense," adding that it would boost local economies and help create jobs. It would include public land that has been studied and recommended as not suitable for an official wilderness designation by either the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.
Scott Jones, a board member of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition and vice president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, said McCarthy's bill "is a great first step." He said that off-highway vehicle riders have played an important role in keeping local economies healthy as other industries, such as mining and logging, have disappeared in some parts of the country.
"Many of the economic impacts are disproportionally located in small mountain towns, which would simply disappear without the income provided from those who are utilizing recreational opportunities on adjacent public lands," Jones said.
But Akenson, of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers told the panel, that members of Congress should not forget that "the economic value of wild lands and waters in America is huge," with billions of dollars spent on commercial outfitters who take people on float trips on rivers and horse and mule pack trips in mountains and canyons.
"These high-quality experiences are dependent on wild backcountry that is free from the noises of man's machines and high-tech devices," he said.