The opening verse of a great American song goes, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California, to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.” Woody Guthrie’s words resonate as much today as they did back in 1940, when the song was first penned. But in this day and age, how much truth is still left in Guthrie’s lyrics?
Where it concerns off-roaders, the answer is: none at all. Gone are the days when a family could pack up a Jeep and trailer and head out to Monument Valley, camping amid the beautiful high rock walls and roasting fish for dinner. These days, the sheer amount of hoops and hurdles in off-roading has created a situation that openly discourages our hobby, and forces us to seek out an ever-dwindling amount of locations to venture to.
Yet for all of the hassle off-roaders go through to get to a very specific spot, and essentially kick up dirt, the struggle to keep these lands open to outdoorsmen seems hardly real or impactful. If anything, we seem to lose these fights over and over as various reasons are thought up to close off land.
Luckily, there are off-road organizations that seek to put a stop to the nonsensical, overzealous legislation, all the while trying to placate unhappy members who feel disenfranchised. Three of these organizations – the Off Road Business Association (ORBA), United Four Wheel Drive Association (UFWDA), and SEMA Action Network (SAN) – represent the fight to keep this land … our land.
The United States of America has more than 3.5 million square miles of land mass. Of that area, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics states there are 2.6 million miles of paved road, from the far reaches of northern Alaska to the balmy beaches of southern Florida. Over the years, government bodies have nudged and pushed their way into the off-road hobby and made it their business to oversee how land is used in the country.
Numerous reasons account for why land that hosts off-road recreation is closed and shut off to the public. To name a few, there are provisions to protect flora and fauna; prevention of accidents by drivers and campers; military encroachment; and natural disasters like fires, volcanoes, and earthquakes.
One such action by the government was through the USDA Forest Service. In 2004, the Forest Service directed its managers with “examining and implementing clear and consistent agency policy concerning OHV uses.” This resulted in the issuing of travel management regulations in November 2005, which “required designation of those roads, trails, and areas where motor vehicle use on National Forest [land] was to be allowed.” The prompt for this move seemed to be, among other things, trailblazing off-roaders that created unofficial trails and went beyond their intended boundaries.
Obviously, the roots of the government’s involvement in land use stretches back further than just the mid-2000s. We can look back as far as former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, and his relationship with Sierra Club founder John Muir, and see the budding interest Teddy had in maintaining the wondrous natural beauty of this country. Once, when making a speech at the Grand Canyon in 1903, Roosevelt said: “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the cañon.”
The fight for off-road land use is as vibrant now as it ever was, and taking it to the government is something that the average Joe simply cannot undertake. At best, he can reach a senator and receive a nice, electronically printed letter with electronic signature, and have absolutely zero impact on the lawmakers looking to close down his favorite off-road area.
That’s where organizations like UFWDA, SAN, and ORBA step in. To take on the struggle of keeping off-road lands open is to take on a multifaceted monster, like a Hydra that keeps sprouting heads the more that get lopped off, and each of these organizations fills a specific role in the ordeal. We spoke with these organizations to get a better understanding of the issues, the people, and the way the war is going.
For UFWDA, the role takes on the grassroots level. “It is imperative that we have a strong and united voice to represent us,” says the organization’s website About Us page. The way UFWDA formulates its “strong and united voice” is through its membership, comprised of 4×4 clubs and associations, and carries out its mission by “assisting and representing member associations in issues [relating to] the use of motorized vehicles on public and private lands,” as stated in the bylaws.
“[We work] with member clubs and associations on land access planning and activities affecting motorized recreation,” said Tom Mandera, president of UFWDA. “We also promote, develop, and coordinate educational programs pertaining to safe and responsible four-wheeling, and inform our members of proposed legislation or other activity affecting motorized recreation.” Beyond that, UFWDA also works closely with the government to “formulate policies concerning trail use and improve recreation, friendship, and unity of [members] through closer communication and organized activities,” he added.
For ORBA, the role takes on the commercial level. Businesses that produce items for the off-road market would obviously have a vested interest in keeping the hobby alive, and ORBA serves to make that interest manifest through “advancing policies that conserve the environment while at the same time providing off-road recreation opportunities,” as its website states.
Speaking with President and CEO Fred Wiley, the function of ORBA is to “keep the land usable. We do the land use work that is keeping the public land open for the use of off-road products. We also do economic impact studies and partner with federal agencies to help them accomplish projects on the ground, and that opens up the opportunity to keep off-road spots open for recreation.
Finally, where SAN is concerned, the role takes on the political level. Under the auspices of the mega-group Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), SAN has probably the greatest wealth of resources to bring to the fight for off-road land use. Director Colby Martin spoke to the beginnings of SAN: “SAN was created because of a human need for lobbying the lawmakers, and vice versa, to enlighten the lawmakers on who to talk to first. There’s really no other group that tackles the issues in all 50 states like we do, and we also represent all aspects of the automotive hobby – hot rods, drag racing, restorations, and of course, off-road.”
While Colby mans the helm at SEMA’s headquarters in Diamond Bar, California, he depends upon veterans like Stuart Gosswein to be close to the action. That’s why Gosswein, the SAN senior director of Federal Government Affairs, is stationed in Washington, D.C. He has seen past events that resulted in land being lost, but he has also seen the victories, too.
“Johnson Valley was a victory for us,” recalled Gosswein, referencing the deserted and rocky territory made famous by the Ultra4 Racing King of the Hammers events. “What happened was the Marine Corps base in 29 Palms was looking to expand, and they wanted Johnson Valley. We said ‘No.’ We worked for six years to reach an agreement that was in the form of legislation enacted by Congress to go ahead and preserve the OHV area of Johnson Valley, and we’re working very closely with the Marines to keep it that way.”
For all of the work that these three organizations handle, it is important to remember that there are a great many organizations on the opposite side. The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Defense Fund, and more represent the voices clamoring for laws that essentially bar the human race from interfering with Mother Nature, no matter how broad or far-sweeping the legislation may be.
There was a time when the environmental movement was necessary to stop destructive habits. Now, we need to bring the pendulum back to the middle and restore the balance. – Tom Mandera, UFWDA
Perhaps the most unfair part is that these groups definitely have the ear of the government, what with institutions like the aforementioned Forest Service, as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all influencing the direction of legislation, which often comes down unfavorably for us off-roaders.
“It’s generally the environmental community that pressures the politicians,” said Gosswein, speaking about how anti-off-road legislation starts. “It’s obvious that President Obama is leaving in a year, and he’s under enormous pressure to designate national monuments and help lock down what’s going to happen to the land.”
As mentioned before, SAN, UFWDA, and ORBA each cover distinct areas in the fight to keep off-road land open, and each is vitally important in its role. For UFWDA, Mandera said: “We counter our opposition with reasonable responses, common sense approaches, and mundane honesty. We marshal our resources and use them where they matter most. We educate users on the proper manner and means of recreating to minimize resource impact. We educate representatives and land managers similarly. We correct would-be legislation before it is drafted or put forth for review, providing sound and honest facts to support the preferred plan without resorting to exaggeration.”
For ORBA, Wiley eagerly seeks to find businesses that have a stake in the issue and want to be heard. “Anyone who services, produces, or designs off-road equipment should be a part of ORBA,” he said. “We have over 400 companies from around the world, and we’re getting bigger every year. Keeping off-road land open lets the industry’s products see usage, and contributes to the enjoyment of the land by allowing people to go further.” Information is a large part of the ORBA enterprise, and ORBA keeps its website well-stocked with the latest initiatives, victories, and other news through its downloadable circular, The National Advocate.
Finally, with SAN, dealing directly with the lawmakers is the modus operandi, in addition to other tasks. “We want to establish policies that apply to the public at large, so we work with our legislators to have bills introduced in Congress,” said Gosswein. “If there is a bill that needs attention, we send an action alert to our members and give them talking points and contact information for their representatives in either federal or state-level legislatures.”
“… Made For You And Me”
Though there are certainly dozens of organizations fighting the good fight for off-road land use, these three groups provided us terrific insight into the behind-the-scenes process. There’s little doubt that when it’s the government versus off-roading, it’s a tough battle. By showing you the people, their duties, and their beliefs, you’ll be a little wiser the next time you go out four-wheeling.
Off-road land use requires that each of us do our part to keep the pastime alive, and joining together is how the off-roader’s voice is heard in the halls of the Capitol. Feel free to learn more about UFWDA, ORBA, and SAN on the respective websites, and help finish Guthrie’s song, “This land is your land, this land is my land, this land was made for you and me.”