Bumpy road looming for off-highway vehicles?

The long-running dispute between environmentalists and off-road vehicle aficionados is back on the boil, partly because of a long-awaited study that suggests state regulatory funding could be cut in half as a hard deadline looms for lawmakers to act. Over time, the feud has pitted hikers against dirt bikers, fishermen against dune-buggy drivers, campers against four-wheel-drives and backpackers against just about everything motorized.

“I think it is a classic case of constituencies fighting each other,” said Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Money is the crux: The state office that tracks off-road driving, the seven-member Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission, its staff and its projects are supported by the equivalent of a 1 percent levy on the state fuel tax. That brings in some $57 million annually and foots the bill for such things developing trails, security, environmental restoration, maintenance, public-use facilities, first aid, rescue work and educational programs.

But money isn’t the only issue. “We do have a fragile environment and we have to protect it,” said Lois Silvernail, who has been off-roading in dune buggies and four-wheel-drives since the 1960s. “But it’s lopsided, because there are all these people who only have a green perspective. We’re not going to go away. You don’t pay $8,000 for a quad and then go out and park it.”

“Absolutely, we can all coexist, but the [State Vehicle Recreation Areas] have got to be open for everybody,” added Silvernail, a registered nurse and a member of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association.

The problem, environmentalists say, is that not enough money goes to environmental protection.

“We know off-road vehicles need a place to go, and state vehicle-recreation areas serve their purpose. But we also think there should be a pot of money set aside to clean up and prevent the damage,” said Brent Schoradt of the California Wilderness Coalition. “There has to be some benefit to a program that campers, hikers and anglers are paying into.”

The state program has been around since Ronald Reagan’s second term as governor, but it’s due to go out of existence by January 1, a sunset date ordered by lawmakers who were exasperated by the uncertainty of the calculations upon which the financing for the program is based. The message from lawmakers was clear: Fix the money or the program will be scuttled–a possibility that caught everybody by surprise and appealed to nobody.

“No one wants to walk away from this. The state has a role,” said one expert who has followed the issue.

The confusion stems from the way revenues are tallied, based on estimated fuel use, the numbers of vehicles, registration status and other factors. Driving habits have changed in the past 17 years–the current funding is based on a 1990 model–and that further affects the figures.

The Legislature demanded that the money be nailed down and officials complied, commissioning a $2 million study to follow the money. A key finding: It appeared that too much money was flowing into the program.

Instead of $57 million, the program actually should be getting between $22.6 million and $31.7 million, according to the September 2006 report by ICF International. Those figures stem in part from revised estimates of gallons-burned for off-road use. The state assumes that 315.9 million gallons a year are burned for off-road driving, but the study said it was really between 125.6 million and 176.3 million–a dramatic reduction.

The study also said the proportion of registered vehicles to non-registered vehicles has changed over the years. This finding is important because funds for off-road use are pegged to vehicle counts, including non-registered vehicles, and the higher the numbers, the more the money.

In the 1990s, officials estimated that for every registered four-wheel-drive vehicle, there were more than seven that weren’t registered. The latest survey says there are fewer than three. The situation is more dramatic for motorcycles: Fewer motorcycles are actually unregistered than registered, ICF says, a sharp departure from the 1990s, when there were nearly six bikes unregistered for every registered bike.

But the study came under fire because its methodology included random
telephone surveys of 15,000 California households, and written diaries by some 15,000 vehicle owners about their off-road activities. The findings were extrapolated onto California’s entire population of on- and off-highway vehicles. One issue: People are skittish from discussing questionable conduct–drivers who ride off-road illegally in protected areas, for example, may not want to talk about it–and that potentially skews the findings.

“It’s confounding to me. When you look at the study, it seems to indicate a dramatic decrease in fuel-tax revenue as a result of decreased use, but we know of data that actually shows OHV recreation registration has actually increased 112 percent from 2001 to 2006,” Steinberg said. “So our idea is to take a look at this, and make sure that the program works, that there’s an appropriate balance between environmental and recreational use.” Steinberg, an attorney and mediator by profession, is taking the lead role in the Legislature in working out a compromise on money and policy. He’s the author of SB 742, which would allow the program to continue after January 1.

One decision has been made already: Officials are going to do another study.

But the issue goes deeper than funding. There is a philosophical divide between those who enjoy off-road motoring and environmentalists.

Off-road enthusiasts believe the state, pressured by environmentalists and
others who know little and care less about off-road recreation, is needlessly over-regulating a sport and crippling the off-road industry by choking off new areas for off-road use. Cutting or eliminating the off-road programs “is a club by the environmental community over the heads of [off-road] user groups to close the roads and take in as much money as possible for conservation and enforcement. Their idea of conservation is to go in, take a trail and return it to a pristine state without the trail,” Silvernail said.

Environmentalists, aghast at the damage done to forest habitats, are equally adamant. “We’re seeing more and more damage to our waterways, wildlife habitat and even designated wilderness areas,” Schoradt said. There is a massive problem of user-created, illegal off-road vehicle trails. There are 11,000 miles of unplanned roads in California’s national forests. A lot of those old logging and mining roads are now targets for ATVs, jeeps and motorcycles.”

Representative of the dispute is the 580-acre Oceano Dunes, south of San Luis Obispo, where vehicles can go directly onto the beach sand, and there are facilities for campers, bathers, bikers, hikers and dune buggies. On a busy summer holiday weekend, the facility draws thousands of visitors. But residents have complained of noise and pollution. Environmentalists say the damage is extensive and off-road vehicle users say miles of the open coastline nearby has already been placed off-limits. San Luis Obispo County supervisors have set up a task force to study the problem.

“We’re gathering information and we’re doing our homework. But there are impacts. In one area, there is only one road in and one way out. You can hardly get to your house if you live in there,” said Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, whose district includes Oceano.

“Both sides are lobbying very heavily,” he added.

Contact John Howard at

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