LEGISLATIVE AND TECHNICAL AFFAIRS
By Stuart Gosswein
Ramping Up for Off-Roaders
SEMA has created a dedicated section on the SEMA Action Network site for information on off-road issues. Visit www.semasan.com/offroad.
SEMA has sought to protect motorized recreation on public lands for decades—with good reason. SEMA’s mission is to protect enthusiasts from unreasonable government actions that threaten their rides, whether on the highway or backcountry trails. It’s also harder to market off-road products when there are fewer places to enjoy them.
The threats are very real. In recent decades, thousands of miles of roads and trails across the nation have been closed due to restrictive land-use designations. That trend continues. In California alone, motorized access to the backcountry deserts has shrunk from 50% open use on public lands in 1976 to 12.5% in 2007. Only 2% of the California desert is currently open to off-highway
Politicians and regulators are being lobbied from many different directions on how to manage federal public lands. Within that battle, SEMA advocates for both dedicated OHV areas and shared-use land access that recognizes the importance of motorized recreation to the economy and for families and individuals.
Now is an especially crucial time to protect motorized recreation. Most federal public land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Each agency continues to review its travel-management policies, sometimes eliminating routes, trails and open areas that have existed for decades. In the U.S. Congress, legislation is pending that would add even more lands to the Wilderness System (no motorized access allowed), which currently encompasses more than 109 million acres (16% of the United States). President Obama is also threatening to create more National Monuments despite having designated 16 to date, which cover millions of acres.
In response, SEMA is expanding its commitment to OHV recreation, with a primary focus on the four-wheel segment. There have been many successes, but more can be done to coordinate efforts and communicate a stronger message. In fact, SEMA has created a dedicated section on the SEMA Action Network site for more information on off-road issues. Visit www.semasan.com/offroad.
- Johnson Valley, California: Saved 96,000 acres from expansion of a U.S. Marine Corp base. The land is a dedicated OHV area and home to the King of the Hammers event.
- Hermosa Creek, Colorado: Congress designated 70,650 acres of federal land in the San Juan National Forest as the “Hermosa Creek Special Management Area,” guaranteeing continued motorized vehicle and snowmobile access.
- Cape Hatteras, North Carolina: Congress required the Department of the Interior to amend its 2012 Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreation Area rule to allow OHV access to seasonal routes for longer periods, create more reasonably sized Endangered Species Act (ESA) protected areas, and construct new vehicle access points and roads.
In Johnson Valley, California, SEMA helped to save 96,000 acres from expansion of a U.S. Marine Corp base. The land is a dedicated OHV area and home to the King of the Hammers event.
- ROV Standard: Challenge an unnecessary mandatory safety standard proposed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs) in favor of an existing industry standard that allows for future design innovations and allows for a variety of ROV uses.
- Moab Utah Trail System: Defend against national monument designation and resulting closures.
- National Monuments: Support legislation in Congress to curtail the president’s power to unilaterally designate national monuments.
- Endangered Species Act: Support legislation in Congress to reform the 40-year-old ESA by requiring the federal government to release data used to make listings of threatened or endangered animals and plants, require that state data be included in the calculations when making such determinations, report how much money is spent on ESA-related lawsuits, and place reasonable caps on attorney fees.
- Bonneville Salt Flats: Pursue a comprehensive salt-replenishment program by the BLM, racing community and private landowners.
In the Spotlight: Utah Public Lands Initiative
SEMA is working with off-road groups, local communities, environmentalists, energy interests and a variety of other groups on the “Utah Public Lands Initiative,” which covers the state’s eastern counties (San Juan, Daggett, Uintah, Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Grand and Summit). Under the initiative, these eight counties are in the process of putting forward individual plans to finalize federal land designations, which include permanent protections for motorized recreation. U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) have led the effort to bring the various interests together and will introduce legislation in 2015 to finalize the agreements. In total, more than 20 million acres of land will be impacted by the initiative. President Obama does not intend to pursue a “Greater Canyonlands National Monument” while local, state and federal stakeholders seek to reach an accord.
Major Federal Laws
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress can forever protect certain public lands. So-called “wilderness” is closed to all motorized vehicles and other mechanical forms of transportation.
“Wilderness Study Areas” are lands that were set aside years ago by Congress because they may have wilderness characteristics. Federal agencies manage the lands so as to protect these characteristics until Congress ultimately decides their final status, which includes designating as wilderness or releasing for other land-use activities.
Since Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906 into law, U.S. presidents have had the power to create national monuments without Congressional approval or public input.
While initially intended to address landmarks and structures of historic or scientific interest, the designations have frequently been applied to huge tracts of land covering thousands and millions of acres. Although roads and trails are not immediately closed, the designations require new land-management plans that usually include closures.
There are now 113 national monuments, with Rio Grande del Norte, Organ Mountains, San Gabriel Mountains and Browns Canyon being the most recent additions.
Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was designed to protect threatened and endangered species and the habitats in which they are found. It applies to federal, state and private lands. There are now more than 2,000 listed threatened or endangered species, which include birds, insects, fish, reptiles, mammals, crustaceans, flowers, grasses and trees.
The law has favored a blanket approach of setting aside millions of acres rather than nurturing smaller recovery zones. As a result, the OHV community has been unnecessarily deprived of access to roads and trails without much success at actually protecting a particular species.
SEMA supports the efforts to establish and manage smaller sage grouse recovery zones in cooperation with private and public landowners.
Everyone wants the greater sage grouse to thrive. The sage grouse is a unique bird of the American West with an odd but captivating mating dance. It’s had a tough life in recent decades due to loss of habitat. Federal and state regulators and private landowners are now scrambling to help protect a bird that has a 165-million-acre range spanning 11 western states.
At issue is the Endangered Species Act and the clumsy mandates that emerge when a plant or animal is listed as threatened or endangered. The government frequently reacts by closing access to thousands of acres of land. In the process, more money is spent on lawyers and court battles than in intervening with active management to help the plant or animal survive.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to decide by September whether or not to list the greater sage grouse. Federal, state and private stakeholders have been working for months and years to put enough protections in place to make that unnecessary. They are focused on three specific goals: reducing habitat fragmentation and lowering noise levels that frighten the bird, improving existing conditions, and reducing the threat of wildfires. Fires destroy sage bush, which is frequently replaced by invasive cheat grass and juniper trees, home to predators such as hawks and falcons.
SEMA supports the efforts to establish and manage smaller recovery zones in cooperation with private and public landowners. This could include restricting and rerouting OHV travel where habitat is being managed, without otherwise limiting motorized recreation and harming the region’s economy.
While we await a listing decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, SEMA-supported legislation has been introduced in Congress that would provide more time, if necessary, to develop adequate government/private sector land-use protections.