There hasn’t been much reason for joy at the path the Forest Service has taken over the last several years under the direction of the resource-ravaging Bush administration. But this week’s news that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest intends to put six Forest Rangers on the trail of ATV scofflaws is a move all Montanans should be celebrating.
In case you missed it, Forest Service spokesman Jack de Golia announced Monday that his agency would be applying to Montana’s Off-Highway Vehicle and Recreational Trails Program for funding to put the additional rangers in the woods on the 3-million-acre national forest. Currently, only three enforcement officers patrol the forest—“That’s a million acres apiece,” de Golia explained.
Given the destruction currently occurring on national forests caused by rampant and often-illegal ATV use, it is well past time for the federal agency that’s supposed to be “stewarding” our forest resources to get on the stick. “Enforcement is a problem,” de Golia admitted. “We just don’t have enough people to cover all the roads and all the ways to get in.”
Sure enough, the numbers bear out de Golia’s assessment in grim detail. Of the 291 incident reports of illegal ATV use filed on the forest in the last five years, only 21 tickets were issued for violation of off-road rules. That means nine out of every 10 rogue ATV riders slipped freely away, leaving only eroding ruts and noxious weeds behind to mark their passage.
The reaction from groups promoting motorized recreation was predictable, if more than a little specious. Beaverhead Outdoors Association President Gene Loder told reporters he hadn’t seen problems with riders tearing up public lands, that his organization was “totally opposed” to the extra rangers, and claimed: “The public will pretty much police itself.”
But anyone who’s spent any amount of time recently in the backcountry knows it’s pretty tough to square Loder’s statements with the reality on the ground. For instance, the Montana Wilderness Association has received grants from the same pot of money the Forest Service is seeking to deconstruct ATV trails built illegally on national forests.
Having been on one of the “deconstruction” crews, I am not talking about a few simple stray tracks through the lodgepoles left by some law-abiding, self-policing ATV rider. The ATVers literally chain-sawed their illegal trails into prime elk sanctuaries, no doubt hoping to road-hunt the magnificent animals right from their machines. With no regard for accepted and sustainable construction principles, the trails often went straight up the slope, limited only by the ever-growing horsepower of their machines, guaranteeing serious erosion problems once water finds the ruts and races downhill.
Anyone who doubts the kinds of abuses taking place in the forests ought to take the time to watch a video made by Al Luebeck of Butte (the MWA has a copy in its library). Over a number of years Luebeck took a series of videos of the same trail in the West Pioneers as it turned from a single-track hiking and horseback trail into a double-track ATV trail. Then, when it eroded into rock-filled ruts impassable to man, horse or even machine, the ATVers simply moved the trail and began the destruction all over again.
Luebeck also has some excellent, if sickening, video of ATVs turning a tiny stream and wetland in a flower-filled mountain meadow into a “mudding” playground, where they tore the hell out of the soft earth until it became impassable and then, as with their other trails, simply moved on over and shredded a little more nature in the name of recreation.
If there’s some place where Loder’s statement that ATVers “know what’s right and wrong” is manifest, perhaps he should mention it so the public can go see the “responsible” ATV use we’re always hearing about from these groups. The widespread damage they cause, on the other hand, is easily discernible on almost any hillside ATVs can reach—and there are plenty of those available for public viewing. Either the motorized mantra that the damage is being caused by a few bad apples is total baloney or there are a lot more than just a few bad apples leaving illegal tracks and trash all over Montana.
This debate, of course, will be ended once the new rangers are on the job. While it’s easy for folks like Loder to posture and point fingers and gripe about their “loss of freedom,” once the rangers start catching people in the act of riding illegally, damaging natural habitat and maybe even cutting a few new trails, they’re going to have to issue some tickets. It won’t take much to surpass the dubious one-in-10 record of the past, and something tells me some folks are going to be surprised by just how many bad apples are out there, tearing up the legacy that should rightfully be passed on to future generations.
It is telling, however, that the Forest Service has to look to the state for its law-enforcement funds. Given that the Bush administration has literally turned our nation into a police state, with out-of-control domestic spying, brutal border policies and a hugely expensive “war on terror,” you’d think they might be able to ensure a few bucks for law enforcement to maintain the biological integrity of our forests.
But no. Left to their own devices, President Bush and his cronies would rather privatize (this means “sell off”) any public lands that aren’t fiscally self-sufficient. The concept of taking responsibility for protecting the resources we, as a people, hold in common has been subverted by the reigning free-market ideologues and their unproven theories.
While there’s little we can do from here to change national policies (especially with jokers like Conrad Burns in office), we should applaud the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest for taking steps to protect Montana’s little corner of the public domain—even if we have to pay to get it done.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.