LEGISLATIVE AND TECHNICAL AFFAIRS
By Steve McDonald
Navigating the Legislative Terrain
How Laws and Regulations Can Stop Off-Roaders in Their Tracks
Like all niches of the auto hobby, off-roading is an activity enjoyed by countless enthusiasts and families all over the country. Responsible use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) allows individuals and families to enjoy all that America’s landscape has to offer on two or four wheels. With increasing frequency, however, enthusiasts are encountering “road closed” signs on public lands. This is often the result of the U.S. Congress passing legislation establishing “wilderness” areas.
A wilderness designation is the strictest form of public land management, since virtually all mechanized equipment is outlawed. Motorized recreation is not permitted on these lands.
While wilderness designations do serve an important environmental purpose, the issue is the amount of land that needs such restrictions and whether it is possible to permit some motorized activities on portions of the land. When Congress enacted the Wilderness Act in 1964, it set aside 9 million acres of land. There are now about 110 million acres.
However, there are some OHV-friendly compromises that can be pursued. For example, reasonable limits should be placed on the amount of acreage to be designated. Existing roads and trails should be “cherry stemmed” so that they do not receive the wilderness stamp.
In recent years, anti-OHV activists have pushed dozens of wilderness bills in an organized effort to lock up as much land as possible. When these bills are rushed through Congress, there is little opportunity to cherry stem existing roads and trails. In fact, the wilderness designation may be an intentional means to force responsible OHV enthusiasts off public land. This hurts local economies that depend on off-road activities and deprives enthusiasts of legitimate recreational opportunities.
In 2009, Congress combined more than 160 separate wilderness measures into one larger bill called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. The law created nearly 2.2 million acres of new wilderness in nine states, including areas in and around Joshua Tree National Park and the Eastern Sierras in California, Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands in Idaho, Mt. Hood in Oregon, Zion National Park in Utah, Sabinoso Wilderness in New Mexico and Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. Many roads and trails were swept up in the closures, including Mt. Canaan Trail in Utah and Dickshooter Ridge Road in Idaho. Congress continues to consider dozens more wilderness measures that could encompass additional millions of acres of land across the country. Scores of popular OHV trails could be closed.
“National Monument” designations are also problematic. Currently, the president has the unilateral authority to apply the designation to any parcel of public land with “historic or scientific interest.” To date, President Obama has established 11 National Monuments, including two in New Mexico totaling nearly 750,000 acres. Such designations frequently lead to road closures for motorized recreation and prevent the creation of new trails. SEMA supports legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress to place limits on that authority. The president could declare a monument of less than 5,000 acres, but that declaration would need Congressional approval within three years. A larger parcel of land would require an environmental study, thereby insuring public input.
So why are these government closures important to you? Many SEMA members market equipment that is used by off-road enthusiasts. Importantly, the same equipment is used to improve and individualize the performance of their vehicles. The enthusiasm for these products is dependent in part on the availability of public lands for off-road use.
Consequently, SEMA supports land-use decisions that are reasonable and enjoy local community support but opposes unnecessarily restrictive land-use policies. Since federal laws and regulations that govern land use are complex, it is sometimes difficult to relate how “No Trails” translates into “No Sales” for SEMA members that cater to the off-road industry.
SEMA Activities in Support of Racing
SEMA’s roots are firmly planted in the racing sector. When formed in 1963, the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association represented companies producing performance equipment for many of the early trailblazers who set land-speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats and other racing venues. Now, more than 50 years later, the industry has blossomed and the renamed Specialty Equipment Market Association embraces the entire distribution chain, including manufacturers, warehouse distributors, jobbers, retailers, specialty stores, sales agents and media companies.
Speed equipment remains the brick and mortar of SEMA. In fact, Bonneville and other dry lakes played a crucial role in SEMA’s formation, since they were primary venues for industry pioneers to race their cars in the ’30s and ’40s.
These pioneers would adjust their equipment on the salt flats or lake beds and then go back to the garage to create the next generation of speed equipment. Many started companies and founded the sport of drag racing. In turn, these companies understood the importance of having an industry trade association and created SEMA.
Legislative and regulatory advocacy has been a key factor in helping SEMA-member companies succeed and prosper. In the ’50s, the industry operated largely free of regulatory constraints. Following the introduction of California regulations in the ’60s to curb mobile-source air pollution, federal and state governments proposed a variety of restrictive measures. Without SEMA’s advocacy efforts, the laws and regulations could have been overly restrictive, with unnecessarily detrimental effects on businesses and consumers.
Although the current legislative/regulatory arena places a focus of attention on street vehicles, SEMA and its government affairs staff continue to advocate on racing issues. Some recent examples include the following:
Endangered Species Act Reform
Despite agreeing that the 40-year-old Endangered Species Act (ESA) is flawed, Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress are generally deadlocked on how to comprehensively update the law. Millions of acres of land have been set aside to protect threatened or endangered animals and plants, with few tangible results beyond lawsuits and attorney fees. Scores of OHV roads and trails have been unnecessarily closed as a consequence. SEMA supports an alternative approach that focuses on establishing and managing smaller recovery zones.
The Greater Sage-Grouse and Lesser Prairie Chicken are examples of current battles over ESA policies. Bird population declines in recent years have been associated with reduced habitat in 11 western states, among other concerns. However, the OHV community does not want a repeat of the 1990 decision to list the Northern Spotted Owl as threatened and shut down timber operations across 24 million acres of land. The OHV community has joined with hunters, ranchers, energy producers and other groups to work with lawmakers and regulators on cooperative ways to protect the birds while providing public access to the managed land.
In the U.S. Congress, the House Natural Resources Committee has approved four bills to reform aspects of the ESA. The bills would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release data used to make listings of threatened or endangered animals and plants, report how much money is spent on ESA-related lawsuits and place a cap on plaintiff attorney reimbursement fees. The bills have been sent to the House floor. There has been little action in the U.S. Senate.
- Racers Against Street Racing (RASR): SEMA re-launched RASR to promote safe and legal alternatives to illegal street racing. Through the SEMA Action Network, RASR provides resources to help enthusiasts take their racing activities to the track. SEMA has partnered with the National Speedway Directory in order to identify racing venues.
- Bonneville Salt Flats: SEMA is a partner in the “Save the Salt Coalition,” which fosters and supports a comprehensive salt-replenishment campaign by the racing community, government regulators and mine operators.
- Johnson Valley, CA: SEMA worked with a number of other OHV groups and lawmakers to help resolve a six-year dispute over access to 189,000 acres of Southern California desert. The U.S. Congress passed a law in 2013 to create a 96,000-acre “Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area.” The area contains a unique mix of open desert, dry lake beds and formidable rock-crawling formations, and it hosts the famous “King of the Hammers” race. Twice a year, the U.S. Marine Corps will have limited access to part of the OHV area for military training exercises.
- Noise Laws: SEMA continues to advocate for the reasonable application of noise laws. In many instances, a long-established racing facility can become the target of noise restrictions when new housing developments are constructed nearby.
- Depreciation: SEMA has partnered with NASCAR to support efforts to continue the seven-year race track depreciation exemption. The legislation allows “motorsports entertainment complexes” to depreciate the cost of capital improvements over a shorter, seven-year period than other facilities.
- Sponsorships: SEMA worked with NASCAR to support and protect military sponsorships of race teams (U.S. Army, Air Force, National Guard). Amendments to federal funding bills have been introduced to eliminate military expenditures on these sponsorships and were defeated by narrow votes.
- CAA Racing Exemption: SEMA continues to advocate for clear and practical application of the Clean Air Act’s exemption for emissions-related equipment used solely for competition use.
- Canada: In 2010, as requested by SEMA, Environment Canada issued a final rule to indefinitely extend an exemption allowing the use of leaded gasoline in competition motor vehicles.
- United States: SEMA monitors for any attempt to modify the Clean Air Act exemption permitting leaded fuel for competition vehicles.
Regulating Motorized Recreation on Federal Lands
Over the years, SEMA has supported managed care of the nation’s public lands in a manner that balances responsible recreational opportunities with a need to maintain the health and beauty of our federal lands and the safety of patrons. The following are the broad principles that guide the association’s advocacy efforts.
- SEMA supports OHV policies that recognize the importance of vehicle-oriented recreation: Increased OHV use in recent years has provided the American public with the ability to enjoy public lands in record numbers.
- SEMA supports broad national guidelines combined with local management decision-making: It is important that local officials have the authority to work with the public and state, federal and tribal government leaders to make appropriate decisions on OHV access.
- SEMA supports strong public involvement in decision-making: SEMA recommends that government agencies be required to seek the active participation of the public in the process of designating OHV access.
- SEMA supports flexible timetables for designations: The designation process is complex and may vary from forest to forest or other federal land areas. While there may be a uniform approach, the specifics must be dealt with at the local level according to the unique circumstances of each land area.
Why are these government closures important to you? Many SEMA members market equipment that is used by off-road enthusiasts.
SEMA supports certain “user-created” routes: By default, the designation process places the onus on the OHV recreational community to identify routes that were created in recent years but have not yet been inventoried (“user-created” routes). Many of these routes came into existence during “open” management, serve a legitimate need and purpose and do not pose an environmental threat. In some cases, these uninventoried routes may even be more environmentally friendly and provide a better overall access solution than their inventoried counterparts.
- SEMA supports reasonable application of “Emergency Powers”: There are times when emergency closures are necessary to provide short-term resource protection or to protect public health and safety. Nevertheless, the public should be included in the decision-making process when such closures last beyond 12 months.
- SEMA supports defined vehicle classes and use authorizations: Vehicle classes need to be defined at the federal level so that there is uniform application across the country when it comes to planning, mapping of roads/trails, etc.