Off-Road Off Limits

Posted January 21, 2009 in News

When Chris Kallen heard about plans to expand the Twentynine Palms Marine training center and create new habitat for local wildlife, he found out the proposal would end up swallowing most of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, a mecca for off-roaders and motorcycle enthusiasts. The expansion would be good news for the live ammo exercises and weapons testing as well as the bighorn sheep and desert tortoises that live in the area.


But it’s bad news for Kallen, secretary of the Desert Motorcycle Club, and hundreds of motorcyclists, dirt bikers and others who have been enjoying an “all-American sport” in the area since the 1970s.


Off-roaders have rights, too.


“You can’t just close public land overnight,” Kallen, of Rancho Cucamonga, tells the IE Weekly.


Now, a federal environmental bill that would set aside nearly 200,000 acres as wilderness area in Riverside County has Inland Empire off-road enthusiasts concerned again and feeling unwelcome because they say the move would mean less land for ATVs, dirt bikes and other forms of recreational riding. Environmental groups, however, say such legislation is needed to protect and conserve the region’s scenic beauty for generations to come.


“It’s just not right,” Thomas Keyworth, a Riverside resident and district representative of the American Motorcyclist Association, says. “This is public land. We should be able to enjoy this land as we see fit.”


Last week, the U.S. Senate approved a massive public lands bill that would affect about two million acres nationwide, including roughly 190,000 acres in parts of east and southwest Riverside County.


The AMA and other groups have blasted the bill—with the unwieldy name of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009—because they say it cuts off significant amounts of land from recreational riding. U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is also one of the bill’s critics. The bill— actually a package of about 160 public land bills—is being rushed through Congress without enough public comment, critics say.


“Continued responsible access to public lands is a vitally important right for current and future generations,” Ed Moreland, AMA vice president for government relations, posted on the AMA website. “This measure deserves to be fully analyzed and thoughtfully debated . . . ”


Public land available for recreational riding is gradually shrinking, according to Keyworth.


“We’re quickly losing it,” he says.


The bill would shut out off-road vehicles from about one million acres of public land nationwide, notes the AMA.


“People who want to recreate responsibly are not going to have anywhere to go,” AMA spokesman Pete terHorst says.


But environmentalists and preservationists say the bill is important to protect Mother Nature.


“It’s significant because some really outstanding natural and cultural resources and scenic landscapes will receive permanent protection,” Geary Hund, associate director of the Palm Desert-based Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy, tells the IE Weekly.


Hund was one of several people who had approached Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs) with the idea of creating new wilderness areas in Riverside County. Eventually, Mack and Senator Barbara Boxer introduced the California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act. This act later became part of the Omnibus bill.


“Thanks to Rep. Bono Mack and Barbara Boxer, those areas will be permanently protected and that will ensure that not only the plants and animals that depend on them will continue to have those places available, it will also mean they will remain available for hikers, equestrians and other people who love recreating in the outdoors,” Hund says.


The bill sets aside scenic and ecologically sensitive land that includes parts of Joshua Tree National Park and four rivers. The new wilderness areas would also include parts of the Cahuilla and Beauty mountains and the Agua Tibia area in southwest Riverside County.


“I am thrilled that we are so close to seeing some of our region’s most scenic and unique landscapes preserved for years to come,” the congresswoman said in a news release after the bill was approved by the Senate.


The legislation still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives and signed by President-elect Barack Obama, both of which are expected to give their signatures on the bill.


When the federal government designates land as wilderness area, backpacking, horseback riding and fishing are typically allowed but, in general, development and off-road vehicles are prohibited.


This doesn’t sit well with off-roaders like Paul Flanders, an AMA district representative. “They just keep eroding the recreational areas,” he says.

–Roberto C. Hernandez


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