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OHV Enthusiasts Unite in Olympia, Washington
Tens of thousands of families involved in Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) recreation in Washington state attended a massive rally on the steps of the Legislative building in Olympia on Good Friday, March 25, 2005. Most participants felt that they had been backed into a corner by years of legislative and administrative attacks on OHV funding and opportunities. The large turn-out made their displeasure with the situation all too clear.
The organizing of the event was originally initiated by a recreational group calling itself the Northwest Outdoor Coalition (NOC). NOC is led by Ed Bushnell, and was formed in response to the unilateral closing of the self funded Thurston County OHV Park. The carefully organized event accomplished its immediate goals: representing the huge scope of OHV recreation, the family focus of the sport, and the immense economic impact that related businesses have; as well as highlighting the serious problem of balancing growing recreational demand against diminishing opportunity. The event was conducted in a professional manner, and set the stage to establish a new government attitude toward OHV recreation.
The statewide OHV community turned out in droves, starting in the early hours of the morning. The size of the rally was such that Olympia was gridlocked all the way onto the freeways, and all of the parking available in town was quickly taken up (hundreds of vehicles were simply not able to find a way in). The State Patrol had to quickly man every intersection in town, and the traffic helicopters were buzzing overhead. NOC had encouraged OHVers to bring in their full rigs, and there were jeeps, bikes, quads and rally cars galore, all to help drive home point of economic impact. Indeed, as some legislators noted about what they called the "protest of the day" on their steps, most protests are minuscule, save for the teachers and health care unions. We matched the crowds for those events, filling all of the steps and spilling over both sides into the parking lot.
At noon, the official rally ceremony began. The intent of the speakers was not to educate the crowd, but to speak for all of them directly to our government. I was privilidged to provide opening comments, after which the other speakers each took their turns. Testimony was heard from a number of different user groups, including dirt bikers, ATVers, four-wheelers and rally car enthuiasts. Many focused on youth participation. Several dozen kids came down out of the crowd to line up in front of the podium with signs to further emphasize the family oriented nature of the sport. Young Monte McGrath delivered a stirring speech, not only about the value of OHV recreation to his family and himself, but also sprinkled with facts emphasizing the impact of the terrible demand verses opportunity problem. In particular, he noted a recent survey at the nearby Tahuya Forest opportunity, wherein the closing of the Thurston County OHV Park had increased usage to a level of 900 riders on 37 miles of trail in a single day.
Jim Boltz, Director of the Washington State Motorsports Dealers Association, then spoke on the economic impact of just the dirt bike portion of OHV recreation. After relaying statistics about the user population which emphasized the "all walks of life" diversity of the OHV public, he astounded us all with the scope of the business. Nearly a billion dollars of retail sales of bikes and accessories and over 70,000 family sustaining jobs for dirt bikes alone exist. Adding in the dollars generated by other recreational groups could easily lead to an estimate that is several times those numbers. Boltz made clear that OHV recreation is the economic lifeblood of many small communities, noting that McLeary, near the closed Thurston OHV Park, has suffered greatly since the closure, and how a single event like the Desert 100 can mean so much to a depressed economy (such as existed in Odessa before the race weekend moved there).
As for myself, I spoke of our vision regarding what a balanced OHV demand verses opportunity scenario might look like, how it would be paid for, and what needed to change to get there. As part of this vision, I listed rough quantities of every type of OHV recreational opportunity needed, including boulder crawling obstacle parks for that form of 4WD, trail and park opportunities for ATVs, bikes and 4WDers, as well as open desert areas and rally car zones. On top of it, a true information system is needed. One where the kids can research the next family outing on the web instead of visiting sites we wish we could prevent them from ever seeing. Indeed, there should be OHV loops suitable for a family in their Subaru wagon (barely needing 4WD), all the way to full blown 4WD treks. And there should be annually updated books covering all OHV opportunities.
How to pay for this? We are self-funded now and are willing to continue to be so. But we need much better focus and accountability regarding the funds we already provide. It has been shown over and over that a well-managed OHV facility is a cash generator!
"Let's re-open all of the OHV opportunities that have been shut down over the last 15 years," I recall saying. "Volunteer labor can and will easily accomplish the trail and facility refurbishment in a matter of weeks!"
We need to have legislation protecting government from excessive liability claims. We also need to see a stop to the introduction of bills that seek to expand the theft of our OHV funds, and that keep whittling away at OHV opportunities. All it takes is a change of attitude. A realization that this is not only a valid form of recreation, but that it is also a powerful, family oriented one that strengthens society and represents a significant segment of our economy. This change in attitude must include an acceptance of the fact that there is an abundance of public land, fully appropriate and manageable, for every form of recreation.
In my comments, I suggested the notion that we need a state agency specifically focused and dedicated to creating and managing OHV opportunities, information, and funding; as opposed to the second priority, afterthought management currently assigned to non-OHV dedicated agencies.
The large crowd at the rally was well-behaved, yet cheered or booed loudly over certain key points. It was reported that we were easily heard throughout the halls and offices of the Legislative building.
Representative Cary Condotta, our current OHV hero in the Legislature, spoke, as did Senator Tim Sheldon. Condotta emphasized his determination to turn the negative demand verses opportunity trend around, highlighting the issues with family and youth that the legislature is concerned about. He also talked about how OHV recreation provides solutions that government should embrace. Senator Sheldon was the sponsor of a particularly damaging bill this session that would have made it illegal to operate an OHV within 600 feet of a property line (essentially requiring a 30 acre parcel just to be able to spin donuts in the middle). He surprised us when he publicly apologized for the bill at the rally, and for his lack of understanding of the OHV community. He pledged to work for us henceforth.
We need to carry the momentum achieved at this rally forward. I urged the crowd that day to stay involved with government, at the county and state level. I asked them to keep the pressure on for a reversal of the unbalanced demand verses opportunity trend. "Keep using the signs," I said. "Don't tolerate biased articles or news reports, and contact them when it happens, to set the story straight. Make sure this place is spotless just like all the cleanups we do. And be prepared to come back to Olympia again if needed."
Press coverage was good, but the TV station crews were distracted by breaking local stories and mostly gathered what they could before the rally ceremony, yielding short spots on the three evening news stations (the best positive coverage of OHVs ever on Washington TV). The big Seattle newspaper ignored us, while the Olympian wrote an accurate and unbiased story. We continue to suffer from mainstream press bias. Perhaps we need to stage a massive rally outside the main media outlet offices, gridlock them, and demand fair and equal coverage!
Many individuals and businesses contributed brainpower and money to pulling this rally off, from press kits to route maps, staging points and codes of conduct to getting the signs made. One business provided 1000 hot dogs to feed rally attendees. There were far too many supporters to list in this article, but they are all deeply appreciated by the whole OHV community. The Northwest Outdoor Coalition is prepared to consult groups wanting to plan similar events.
We'll see what impact we have soon enough. All of a sudden, several viable alternatives for re-opening Thurston County OHV have surfaced around government. A major budget theft plan appears to have been shelved. Yes, there will likely be immediate, positive results. But we must not back down until we achieve the true attitude shift and create a new future for OHV recreation.
The success of the Olympia rally should be the start of 49 more rallies, one for each state in the Union. We have been backed into what may be a final corner. The state of Connecticut is actually considering simply banning the sale and use of all ATV's and dirt bikes. It is time for the greater OHV community to band together even tighter than before, and stand in front of government and make them realize that we are not some fringe activity easily brushed aside. We are an American form of recreation that is huge, and we are not going to stand any more of the treatment we have generally experienced for the last two decades.
--For questions or comments on this article, the author may be contacted through the BlueRibbon Coalition: 4555 Burley Drive, Suite A, Pocatello, ID, 83202. Phone: 208-237-1008, Fax: 208-237-9424. Email