We were once the land of the free.
There was a time, many years ago, when our public lands were completely open to the public. If you were driving in a National Forest, or on land managed by the BLM, you could drive anywhere you wanted to. You could literally create your own trails. Unfortunately, there are very few public lands left where you have complete freedom to just drive anywhere.
In the latter part of the 20th century, most public lands enacted a new rules and regulations. If you were driving in a National Forest, you could no longer just drive through the woods, you had to stay on the existing trails and roads. For the most part, the off road community was fine with this. We normally stayed on the trails anyway!
Then, starting in the early 2000’s, “route designation” as part of the Travel Management Rule started. National Forests had to designate which routes would be open for use, and which routes would be closed. Suddenly, National Forests all over the country had routes erased right off the map. Many of these routes were 4×4 trails that had been used for decades by off road enthusiasts, but many more were just normal dirt routes that lead to campsites or rivers. So called “spur routes”, meaning dead end roads, were one major focus of route designation. Land managers in an office figured they were roads to nowhere, so they took them off the maps. Unfortunately, many of these spur routes lead to popular campsites. Even campsites on a road left open were affected. Since route designation states that would must never drive off the main route, you could not even drive your rig into your campsite. You have to park on the side of the actual road and hike all your gear in.
Route designation started a massive fight.
Land-use activists and pro-access groups argued and fought for many trails. While we managed to save a few, thousands of miles of routes on public lands were closed across the United States.
Then, unbelievably, it even got even worse.
Many National Forest then added “wet season closures.” Meaning dirt public routes are closed to wheeled motorized use during the winter. In Eldorado National Forest for example, the wet season closure roughly goes from December to April. During that time (which can be extended or started earlier depending on weather conditions) you are not allowed to travel on ANY dirt routes in the forest. Even if that road is dry and dusty. In fact, the only dirt route open in the Eldorado National forest is the Rubicon trail. Thankfully because the Rubicon is a county road and not managed by the Forest Service, so the rules for the trail itself are different, but not for the forest that surrounds it.
There has been a kind of lull in land-use for the past few years because of the end of route designation. But that does not mean that whatever access you have left is still not in danger. Certain things must still be done by all of us in order to not only keep our trails open, but to get trails back open. We are now actually in a position to fight to open trails back up, but we need your help, which leads us to our first point:
It all starts here. I can not state this enough. We must all set the example and play by the book. Know the rules and the routes for the area that you four wheel in. STAY ON THE TRAIL. Every National Forest has a “Motor Vehicle Use Map” showing which routes are open for your use. Make sure you know where are when you are allowed to wheel. Just because there is not a sign or a gate, that does not mean a route is not closed.
I cannot even begin to count the number of times that I have stood in front of a meeting of land managers stating that Jeepers stay on the trail and recreate responsibly, but then my argument would be countered by the “other side” showing pictures and evidence of vehicles that are off trail or not following the rules. Many, if not most, public land managers document instances of people off trail and resource damage done by off road vehicles. Unfortunately, some groups separate from land managers have even been awarded thousands of dollars in grant money to document and report on damage done by off highway vehicles.
Lets say that you are all alone in a forest on a paved road during the wet season while there is a wet season closure. As you are driving down that road, you see a muddy route leading off it that looks REALLY fun. No one else is around, you know it will not do any damage, so you break the wet season rule and bomb down that trail. You ride home with a smile on your face and your rig covered in mud, thinking that no one will ever know.
The problem is the next day, either the forest service or one of the groups given grant money to inspect the forest for resource damage, takes pictures of the ruts your vehicle made, and document that vehicles have gone off road illegally in that area. If this becomes a big enough problem, land managers often gate the road or block it with boulders that you can’t bypass. Every time someone breaks a rule in the forest, it is another nail pounded into our access coffin.
So what else can you do to maintain our access to our public roads?
Volunteer for an OHV work party!
Most public lands have “Friends of” groups, non-profit organizations, or Jeep clubs that have adopted a trail or a part of the forest. Nearly all of these groups have work parties that clear trails, build water-bars, cut back brush, build campsites etc. to make sure that trails stay open to the public. To use Eldorado Nation Forest in California once again as an example, that forest is home to “The Friends of the Rubicon” (FOTR), The Friends of Eldorado (FOE), P.L.I.N.K. (Please Leave it NRA Klean) and multiple 4×4 clubs that maintain the trails, forest and campsites. All of these organizations work hand in hand with the Forest Service and land managers.
Volunteering for these groups is an absolute blast. Especially if you are new to wheeling, it is a great way to make connections and meet new people that share a common interest. Attending Friends of the Rubicon work-parties, I have made friends that are now more like family. Helping out not only helps our secure access, but helps you make connections and learn about the area you wheel in.
If your area does not have any groups that lead work parties, you can start your own! The first step to make sure you run a successful work party, is to contact Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee Del Albright and ask him about one of his training programs. Del has an online course and an even better leadership course called VLLS which has trained many of the leaders of the fore-a-mentioned groups!
One awesome part about trail work parties is that while route designation has closed trails, the maps are fluid, meaning that there IS the possibility to re-open trails if they are brought back into shape to limit resource damage. We have the ability to increase our access!
But there is one more important step to maintain our access:
There are many “pro-access” organizations out there that work not only with land managers but with legislators to keep our public lands open to the public. There are both National, State and local organizations. The Blue Ribbon Coalition is one very well known National pro-access organization. One of the oldest in California is the California Four Wheel Drive Association. (Cal4) Another very effective California organization is CORVA. Since I live in California, I proudly belong to these three organizations.
In your state or area, find an organization that fits you and join. Many of our pro-access groups are underfunded and NEED your help. Many times your membership does not just mean a sticker, several of these groups hold workshops and fun off-road events to get involved in.
If every off roader followed these three steps: wheel responsibly, attend trail and forest work-parties, and join our pro-access organizations, our children’s access to our trails and public lands would remain secure.
For more on the vital actions we can all take, read the article here on Keeping Public Lands Out of J.A.I.L.