By God, it was my right. No one could tell me I couldn't chop new roads through national forest land with my off-road vehicle (ORV) and my chainsaw.
I paid my taxes. This land belonged to me. If a few trees had to be cut and some makeshift roads had to be opened, well, too bad. It was worth it if I got to have a little more fun. My buddies in New Mexico and millions more around the country probably felt the same way.
Then I began to notice something about the Carson National Forest near Taos, N.M. The elk were leaving, migrating somewhere else, and the quality of the hunts I'd enjoyed began to decline. And I noticed something else: The elk were moving to areas where they didn't have to face harassment from rogue off-road vehicle-users like me.
I remained quiet about this for years, but when a group of thoughtless riders ruined my own hunting experience, I had no choice but to think hard about what I'd been doing. It was time for me to change my habits and to speak out openly on behalf of reasonable and responsible off-road use.
For an entire morning, I'd tracked a herd of elk in an area that hadn't faced significant pressure from aggressive ORV riding. It was the peak of the rut, and the bugling of bull elk echoed during a perfectly planned hunt. I knew that the long effort of following this herd was going to pay off.
But then, three all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riders shattered the stillness, roaring into the area on an illegal trail and blasting shotguns at a flock of grouse. The elk fled—and my hunt was over.
When I confronted the riders, they had no clue that their raucous invasion had destroyed my outdoor experience. They didn't even think about the impacts their riding had on those who enjoy quiet recreation—hiking, camping, hunting and horseback riding in our national forests.
After the three ATVers ruined my hunt, I knew I had to change my ways. I love ATV riding, but the truth is that my ATV and the millions like it have made severe and cumulative impacts on our public lands and wildlife. The impacts of off-road vehicles are probably even more profound and far-reaching than we think they are. It's sad but true that future generations—including my 3-year-old daughter's—will find our public lands roaded and devalued beyond repair if this problem is not addressed.
When I told my fellow ORV riders of my change of heart, most replied that I was "nuts." They said that even if I decided to alter my behavior, most other ATV riders would not.
Luckily, that has not been the case. My transformation into an advocate for responsible off-road vehicle riding has led other riders I know to rethink how they behave in the national forest. And as more of us set examples of prudent off-road use, we can become a powerful force to protect our key national forest lands.
It couldn't happen at a better time. The Carson National Forest, which sits right in my backyard, is at a critical juncture. Its land managers, along with other forest managers across the country, are drafting long-term plans that will change how off-road vehicles are dealt with for decades to come.
Now is the time to urge our land managers and lawmakers to set aside large segments of America's national forests, preserving them for clean water, wildlife habitat and the vast majority of us who visit the backcountry seeking peace and quiet. This means accepting fair and reasonable restrictions on ORV use. After all, everyone has a right to enjoy our forests, but no one has the right to abuse them.
If we don't change our ways, then the warning of Wallace Stegner, the esteemed author and conservationist, may well come to pass: "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed...so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it."
Garrett VeneKlasen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He was born, raised and currently lives in northern N.M.