Dave Rockwell with trail bikes above the Valle
A ride on the dark side
Last spring, several trail bikers expressed their displeasure
with my blatantly-biased articles regarding motorized use of a
section of the national forest east of Placitas. I was writing
about the U.S. Forest Service Travel Management Plan, a federally-mandated
public process to develop regulations for motorized off-road travel.
The conflict between treehuggers and motorheads is getting ugly,
especially regarding the Santa Fe National Forest plan—which
includes the Jemez Mountains. Neither side seems willing to compromise.
A September 26 article in the Santa Fe New Mexican described a
battle that has “pitted well-organized environmentalists
and local residents against equally well-organized dirt bike and
all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts.”
“Motorized recreation is the latest, greatest, and growing
threat to our national forests,” John Horning, executive
director of the Santa Fe-based environmental group Forest Guardians,
says. “And these travel management planning processes are
basically giving carte blanche to the motorized recreational industry
to go where they want to go.”
Not true, says Forest Planner Rob Potts, who estimates that there
are approximately ten thousand miles of roads in the Santa Fe
National Forest presently open to motorized vehicles, and that
the latest draft rule would only designate approximately three
thousand miles for their continued use—a seventy percent
Motorized users feel that the USFS and environmentalists are
trying to keep them out, even though federal law considers dirt
bikes and ATVs one of many approved recreational uses of the forest.
A lot of law-abiding, nature-loving citizens are heavily invested
in a sport that requires a place to play. But as Potts says in
the New Mexican, “There are people who look at motorized
vehicles and see pure evil.”
I myself felt like I was taking a ride on the dark side when
I agreed to accompany my friend Dave Rockwell on a trail-bike
ride in the Jemez Mountains last month. He had a spare 200cc Kawasaki
KDX—a very cool machine. It had been over twenty-five years
since I last rode a motorcycle, having made a deal with the God
while flying over handlebars toward certain death. I hoped that
God and my fellow tree-huggers would excuse a little investigative
It’s been nearly fifty years since Dave mounted a Briggs
and Stratton lawn mower motor on his bike and drove into the woods,
but he was practically giddy with excitement over the ride that
lay ahead. He’s been riding in the Jemez Mountains since
the mid-eighties and says that he can see more forest in one day
than most people see in a lifetime. He says that dirt bikes have
a fairly benign effect on the environment and resents being lumped
together with other off-road vehicles.
We set out on Forest Road 144 just off the road to Fenton Lake
and rode along the rim of San Antonio Canyon. Dave stopped to
wait while I poked along, trying to get a feel for the bike. There
were single track trails alongside, but it was hard enough for
me just to negotiate the loose dirt, rocks, and ruts in the road
that took us all the way to the fence line above the Valle Grande.
At ninety-five hundred feet, this part of the mountain is usually
snow-packed at this time of year, but there were only patches.
It was a warm last day of hunting season, but we didn’t
see any hunters or game. What we did see were panoramic views
across the wide Caldera to the Pajarito Ski area and Redondo Peak,
north past the back side of the landmark Pedra Nol above Abiquiu.
We saw forty-eight miles of beautiful national forest.
It seemed that there was plenty of room for all recreational
users to share the treasure. We didn’t tear up the land
or disturb any hikers—there weren’t any hikers. Most
use of the public lands is crowded into easily accessible popular
destinations. As dirt bikers are restricted from parts of the
forest, trails that they made and maintain will probably disappear,
denying access to hikers and mountain bikers. Overuse of limited
areas once they are designated for motorized use could lead to
even more environmental degradation. The draft of the Travel Management
Plan also calls for drastic restrictions on dispersed camping.
Car camping would be confined to designated areas. The new regulations
and factionalization of recreational interest groups could keep
a lot of people out of the forest, leading to less public demand
for recreational opportunities. Without this demand, there could
be continued deterioration of government-supported preservation
of public lands.
By the time we headed back, I had started to get a pretty good
feel for my bike. I learned to stand on the pegs, steer with foot
and knee pressure, maintain speed uphill, and downshift at the
right time. I found myself trying to drag a foot when the rear
tire fishtailed in soft dirt around corners, and I wound up going
way too fast—and having way too much fun.
Best of all, I survived, but from now on I’ll stick with
my non-motorized mountain bike, keep writing those blatantly anti-motorized
articles, and might just abstain from motorcycles for another
twenty-five years (unless, of course, somebody asks me to go riding
As it stands now, motorized users have the right to drive anywhere
they want in the national forest and BLM lands that are not specifically
off limits. They can drive over trees, through sensitive riparian
areas, and across wildlife corridors. Single tracks created by
motorcycles are taken over by ATVs and then by full-size off-road
vehicles, causing wide swathes of destruction and erosion. The
government has to do something to control the lunatic fringe that
delights in laying waste to our public lands. Neither extreme
will be happy if the new rules go into effect, as planned, in
2009. Hopefully, it will work for most of us.
Two weeks in the West
—RAY RING, HIGH COUNTRY
“Divorce is just terrible. It’s one
of Satan’s best tools to kill America.”
—Idaho State Rep. Dick Harwood, R, who
is part of a state task force focused on finding solutions to
the decline of the Idaho family.
November is the most political month, for better or worse, even
in odd-numbered years.
Thus we’ve just learned that two more of the West’s
top Republicans are quitting: Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin and Colorado
Rep. Tom Tancredo both announced that they won’t run for
re-election when their terms expire next year. They’re joining
a crowd on the sidelines, as four other party leaders —
Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, New Mexico
Sen. Pete Domenici and Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi — have already
announced they’re quitting.
Cubin says she needs to spend time with her husband, who is ill.
Tancredo says he’s done all he can in the House (mostly
trying to choke Latino immigration, unsuccessfully) and now he’ll
focus on running for president (a race he’ll almost certainly
lose). Some of the other quitters are mired in scandal. General
message: It’s a bad time to be a Republican candidate, with
President George W. Bush’s ratings as low as a sunset.
They announced their decision to be toast — far in advance
of next November’s big election — in order to give
their party a chance to settle on good replacement candidates.
Still, those six Western seats in Congress will suddenly have
no incumbents. It raises Democrats’ hopes of taking one
or more in the swirl of the region’s political swing dance.
Meanwhile, in actual elections, there were two intriguing themes:
Voters in fast-growing Western communities — rural as well
as urban — showed support for land-use planning and candidates
who would manage development. The other theme could be called
Foremost, Oregon voters passed Measure 49, restoring many land-use
regulations that had been blown apart in 2004 by the West’s
most famous ballot initiative ever, Measure 37. Now the regs are
like the porridge Goldilocks settled on — not too hot and
not too cold — and Oregon landowners can build modest developments
that suit the character of neighborhoods.
Then there’s the convergent part: Measure 49 was endorsed
by the Oregon Farm Bureau, which often spurns regulations but
now wants to protect farmland. It won a majority of votes in several
conservative rural counties. Statewide, it won an impressive 61
percent, largely thanks to the usual green suspects in Portland
Elsewhere, voters in Helena, Mont., and Boulder County and Longmont,
Colo., decided to tax themselves to buy more open-space lands
or improve parks. Candidates who took pro-planning positions won
local races in Idaho’s Teton County (recently discovered
by developers) and in metro Boise. Three such candidates won city
council seats in Las Cruces, N.M., including Nathan Small, who’s
a “wilderness protection organizer” for the New Mexico
Seattle had a different kind of convergence. Two ballot measures
there would’ve addressed transportation gridlock with new
mass transit and roads, funded by new taxes. The Sierra Club joined
conservative anti-tax folks in opposing the package, and voters
rejected it. The Sierra Club, concerned about emissions that cause
global warming, wants new mass transit without new roads. The
group’s exit polls showed that most voters feel the same
way. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and the enviros vow to present
voters with a light-rail proposal next year, hoping it’ll
pass on its own.
Nearly every Westerner in Congress voted for the oasis-like Water
Resources Development Act, which would spend $23 billion on water
projects scattered from Florida’s Everglades to the Yakima
River port in Washington. They piled on as Congress overrode Bush’s
veto of the bill. This is the same Congress that can’t override
Bush on Iraq policy. Water-project convergence is truly unstoppable.
In Montana, moderate Republican legislator Bill Jones of Bigfork
announced he won’t run for re-election next year, because
he thinks the Republican Party has gone too hard-line right. “My
party has pushed a lot of people like me out,” Jones told
the Billings Gazette. The 68-year-old dentist opposes abortion,
but converges with independents and Democrats on education and
In Arizona, first-time congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat,
married a NASA astronaut, in a ceremony at an organic farm south
of Tucson — a personal convergence. And in Nevada, Las Vegas
magicians Siegfried & Roy announced their endorsement of Hillary
Clinton for president.
This article originally appeared in High Country News (www.hcn.org),
which covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues
from Paonia, Colorado.
The West’s forests will never be the same
Last year’s Indian summer fires in Montana were so intense,
so awesome in their fury, that they even spooked veteran firefighters.
Pilots dumping retardant on the Jungle Fire southeast of Livingston,
Montana, reported flames jumping five hundred feet above the tree
line. For comparison, imagine a wall of flames leaping over the
Washington Monument. Hotshots, those elite firefighters delivered
to fire lines from the air, dropped their shovels and gaped. What
they were seeing, as super-dry fuel morphed into explosive gas,
was a fundamental change now taking place in the chemistry of
That was right about the time that former Montana Senator Conrad
Burns (R), called a group of exhausted firefighters lazy, good-for-nothing
layabouts. It turned out that the crew was just catching some
Zs on an airport tarmac after coming off a thirty-six-hour stint
on the fire line. This summer, Senator Burns was gone; the Hotshots
were busier than ever.
I have a clear memory of that episode because I was working on
a story about climate change, and climate modelers at NASA’s
Goddard Institute told me that all of their predictions for climate
change were accelerating. A couple of years ago, the low end on
the projected increase in global temperature was 1.5 degrees centigrade.
That window, a best-case scenario in the climate models, is now
closed. The bottom limb of the arc is at now at two degrees centigrade.
The physicists who watch these models, as data pour in from reporting
stations around the world, have their fingers crossed. The consensus
among scientists is that if we hit three degrees centigrade hotter,
we need to start looking for another planet.
What the NASA people were finding seemed to correlate with close
observations of a friend of mine in Billings. Bob Ruble, a longtime
resident of the Yellowstone Valley, told me that timber on his
property has been tested, and it is now drier than kiln-dried
lumber. “This entire region seems to be readjusting to desert-like
conditions,” he says.
Rich Cronn, a research geneticist based at the U.S. Forest Service
lab in Corvallis, Oregon, agrees. “Plant species across
the West are under an enormous amount of stress,” says Cronn.
“Conditions that once made life possible for a lot of species
in marginal areas are changing very quickly. Fifty years from
now, most of our forests are going to look very different than
they do today.”
How different? One answer is that they might be gone. For a forest,
climate change means two things—bigger fires, and lots more
of them. Meanwhile, Cronn says, “We’re all working
on the models that will give us a better understanding of what’s
coming next. It’s a fluid situation.”
Cronn and most of his colleagues believe that forests will begin
to die off, and first to go will be the forests of Southern California,
New Mexico, and Arizona. That’s because very few species
in those forests have developed fire tolerance. Next, high-elevation
conifer forests in the Southwest are virtually certain to vanish.
That means the sparsely wooded islands of trees across the high
country of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California
could be gone in a generation. When the last Ice Age retreated
thousands of years ago, the world it left behind allowed those
stands of white and limber pines to take root and flourish. Today,
say Cronn and his colleagues, those conditions are gone.
“High-elevation forests will have a tough time coming back
if they burn,” Cronn says. “The conditions necessary
for seedling survival just aren’t there.”
That means that unless something unforeseen happens, the entire
high-country ecosystem in the West is going to undergo radical
change, including the dislocation of thousands of wildlife species
for whom these forests are home. If and when the island forests
of conifers are lost to fire, they’re not going to reseed.
Grasslands will quickly move up in elevation and take over.
Mature conifer forests that don’t burn in coming decades
will probably survive the initial change in conditions, says Cronn,
but they won’t form a beachhead against climate change because
those trees won’t reseed, either.
“Even if they survive, they won’t be able to replace
themselves, so when they die off—that’s pretty much
the end of the road. These forests won’t be coming back
any time soon,” Cronn says.
So if you happen to be looking for a job with longtime security,
say, for the next fifty years, you might look into the Hotshots.
They’re going to be busy.
Writers on the Range is a service of High Country News in
Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org).