Do Motorcycles Belong in Nature?

I never thought of hiking and biking and swimming and picnicking, the activities that draw me to mountains and lakes and forests, as a privileged category of outdoor recreation. But to off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, the federal government is unfairly supportive of my type of "non-motorized recreation," while it restricts access to or closes the motorized trails that they prefer.

One of the things that Republicans want to do with national forests, parks, BLM territory and other public lands, [instead of conserving them](, is ensure that off-highway vehicle users get a crack at using them for recreational purposes. A series of witnesses representing OHV interest groups or businesses [are testifying before Congress this morning]( that "OHV recreation is an important part of what defines our people and needs protecting through effective planning," as Russ Ehnes, the executive director of the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council put it.

It's very clear that OHV users go to national parks for similar reasons that hikers like me do: to hang out with trees and wildlife, check out gorges and mountain view, swim in cold pools fed by waterfalls. In their testimony today, OHV users were careful to say that motorized trails can be maintained sustainably, and there are groups out there, like Ride with Respect, in Moab, Utah, that are pushing OHV users to stay on trails, minimize dust, and avoid sensitive soil conditions.

Any recreational use of public lands disturbs nature to some extent, but groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society have fought against OHV users because their machines kick up dust, which can spread far and diminish vegetation, disrupt and pack down soil, and create noise pollution far greater than even the rowdiest group of teenage hikers can produce.

I'll admit that the one time I was driven on all-terrain vehicle through a swath of forest, it was really fun. But I have a hard time thinking of these activities as sports or as comparable to hiking. As a hiker, I might kick up some dust and disturb some animals, but the impact I can have is pretty small compared to the damage I could do astride a motor-powered vehicle. By restricting motorized trails, the government's not "limiting access to public land for all of us," as Scott Jones of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition claimed. It's just limiting an activity that puts a far greater stress on resources that are meant to be healthy and available for generations to come.