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A Sickly Smell From the Colorado ORV Program

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Colorado's public lands have experienced an explosion in off-road vehicle (ORV) use in the past few years. Most riders are responsible, but a significant number of reckless riders continue to venture off marked trails to cause extensive and lasting damage to watersheds and fish and wildlife habitat, while deeply eroding the quiet, meditative backcountry experience sought by hunters, hikers, backpackers, and other traditional non-motorized recreationists.

Currently, Colorado charges $25.25 in annual registrations fees for each ORV, which raises some $3.2 million annually for the state ORV Program. Logic demands that a portion of that fat purse goes to ORV law enforcement to assure public safety and prevent further resource damage, with another share dedicated to repairing the damage already done. But when it comes to ORVs, logic fails. As a recent Durango Herald editorial pointed out, virtually every penny of ORV "sticker fund" monies goes to maintaining, improving and in some cases expanding motorized trails on public lands, and to various forms of ORV self-promotion.

A lot of Coloradans think that's wrong. A broad coalition of more than 40 state and national organizations representing more than 100,000 sportsmen, other outdoor recreationists, conservationists, law enforcement personnel and elected officials joined together to ask the State Parks Board to make much-needed changes to the Colorado ORV Program to provide significant funding for dedicated law enforcement -- now critically lacking -- and restoration of motorized damage to fish and wildlife habitat.

Colorado sportsmen are also troubled by the findings of a recent investigation by the Denver Post. Everyone is aware of the state's critical budget crunch -- except apparently the ORV enthusiasts who sit on the ORV Subcommittee that doles out grants from the ORV Program fund. As the Post article revealed, the ORV Subcommittee gave grant applicants $525,000 more than they asked for in 2009, even as the State Parks budget was suffering cuts of more than $3 million, to which those excess sticker funds could and should have been transferred. The ORV Subcommittee's ties to rider groups and the ORV industry have also raised issues about conflicts of interest, as does the outrageous fact that the same person chairs both the OHV Subcommittee and the Trails Committee (which supposedly screens the Subcommittee's grant recommendations).

As a passionate hunter and angler, I'm obligated to point out that Colorado sportsmen pay for habitat and resource maintenance, as well as our own law enforcement, via license fees and federal taxes on sporting gear. And you won't easily find a sportsman or woman who openly resents those fees, knowing they are used democratically to ensure that our outdoor activities are managed responsibly. Are we wrong, "radical" or "un-American" to feel strongly that public-lands ORV riders should do the same?

Our "pay your own way" coalition supports what we see as an utterly reasonable reformed distribution plan that would dedicate 40 percent of the ORV Fund to ORV law enforcement. Another 30 percent would go to restore the habitat damage caused by outlaw riders. The remaining 30 percent would remain dedicated to trail maintenance, signage, maps, and rider education.

For the OHV community to demand that every penny of their vehicle user fees be devoted to more and better trails is the equivalent of sportsmen saying that all of our much higher license fees and other sporting-specific taxes be spent to put more trout in streams and more elk in the woods, with nothing given to law enforcement or resource protection. If the ORV community feels so strongly that they can't survive with a reduced trails budget, then what keeps them from self-imposing a special trails-dedicated annual vehicle fee separate from the state sticker fee? A new ATV costs several thousand dollars. Add an ATV trailer and a rig sufficient to pull it, gas for rig and ATV, plus other travel expenses -- how big a sacrifice would it really be, after all of that, to add another few bucks annually, per vehicle, in order to cover the entire spectrum of motorized recreation's considerable and growing negative impacts on public lands, wildlife and the quiet-user majority?

If I were a leader in the ORV community, I'd not be fighting, but rather championing this necessary change. Only by cooperating with the non-motorized majority in containing motorized abuse, overuse and resource damage will the American public continue to tolerate what many feel should never have been allowed in the first place. Riding a motorized vehicle into public lands backcountry is not a right, not by a long stretch. Like hunting and fishing and all other public uses of the American commons, it's a privilege that can be revoked at any time if the abuses are allowed to continue.