In Reverse

Blue Ribbon Coalition shows an environmentally friendly face


Is this the beginning of a kinder, gentler Blue Ribbon Coalition?.

For two decades, the advocacy group has been the ultimate champion of motorized recreationists, using trail closures, wilderness areas and the conservation movement as its rallying point. In the process, it has become the bane of environmentalists.

But the organization's newly revised articles of incorporation and bylaws have taken a spin that has raised eyebrows on both sides of the issue.

"[The Blue Ribbon Coalition] shall be dedicated to defense and enhancement of recreational access, via motorized, mechanized and non-mechanized means, to public lands, and to the protection of the environment," read the new documents.

The statements, filed recently with the Idaho secretary of state, have some wondering if this is a new chapter for the group or just political spin.

"We've been portrayed as something different than what we really are," said Greg Mumm, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition. "We dispute the image that [our] members value consumption and destruction. It's simply not true.

Mumm says he hopes the new statements show that "we're as concerned about protecting the environment as anyone."

"It's a realization that making the trails sustainable is just as important as any lawsuit or any effort to maintain access," said Brian Hawthorne, the coalition's public lands policy director.

It's a marked change for an organization born in response to the environmental movement. "When we were young, it was 'let's fight them greenies,'" Hawthorne said. "We've gotten bigger and less reactionary, and our updated purpose statement reflects that."

The Blue Ribbon Coalition is the largest motorized recreation advocacy group in the nation, with roughly 10,000 dues-paying members, representing approximately 500,000 individuals across the country. With its headquarters in Idaho Falls, the group operates with a $1 million annual budget.

From the coalition's perspective, the best way to preserve access to public lands is not to give any reason to close it. "We're not insensitive about our impacts," Hawthorne said. "We've got to think bigger if we want to continue to keep our privileges."

Of course, some believe the coalition's changes are nothing more than window dressing.

"They're trying to put some gloss on the purpose of the Blue Ribbon Coalition," said Jerry Jayme, director of the Idaho Environmental Council. "A lot of entities are trying to sound green these days."

Founded in 1969, the council has been a vocal critic of the coalition. "I don't know how you can be a good steward for the land and encourage that kind of use to the extent that they do," Jayme said.

He points to single-track trails widened by ATV users, damaged hillsides and riders who disregard trails altogether. These continuing problems have been a major headache for the coalition as well.

"I'm tired of the perpetual black eye these sort of problems give us," Hawthorne said.

So what does Hawthorne tell motorized users? "You have to fight the publicity battle, and you need to behave," he said.

When asked if he would support the essence of the coalition's changes, Jayme was unsure. "The emphasis is fine. I would applaud that, but I don't know how they can mitigate the damage when they keep encouraging use."

Others in the conservation community are more hopeful.

"It's never too late," said Brad Smith, conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League. "Blue Ribbon Coalition could play an important role. It looks like a positive direction, but actions speak louder than words."

Smith points to increasing numbers of people using public lands, which can put strain on the environment. "It can no longer be just a big free-for-all," he said.

Mumm argues with the idea that it's just a few ill-mannered motorized vehicle users causing the problems on public lands. "There are bad apples across the board," he said.

But just a few of these bad apples can ruin it for many others, said John Freemuth, political science professor at Boise State.

"With [off-road-vehicle] people, it can come down to a perception thing," he said. "How many bad [apples] are there really? Just a few can blow this thing wider than it is. Those people in the wrong place can do a heck of a lot of damage."

For Freemuth, the question comes down to what "sustainable" means. "That word can mean a lot of different things to different people," he said.

Supporters on both sides are passionate, but the coalition's best defense is to stress tolerance, he said. "They need to present a front that they are acting responsibly," Freemuth said. "If they can police their own and do rehabilitation, they would be blunting the criticism."

While Paul Turcke, general counsel for the coalition, knows there's going to be distrust in the coalition's rewording, he said the changes should be taken at face value. "It represents a move in the right direction," he said. "It advances the distinction between organized, educated recreationsts vs. testosterone-driven young people who don't know any better."

The coalition spent more than a year wording the revised bylaws, which were approved by a strong majority of members in an online vote over the summer.

Some coalition members, though, have expressed concern that the group may be moving away from its intended purpose. It's a reaction Mumm said coalition leaders anticipated during the planning process.

"We always have the concern that some of our constituents might fear you're deviating too far," he said. "We took nearly a year to make sure we have it right."

"What drives a lot of this stuff is fear," Hawthorne said. "If you're an off-roader, you don't know if you're going to be able to go to your favorite campsite or trail. You become bitter, angry and a little afraid."

As evidence that the changes are more than just words, Hawthorne points to the coalition's support of the U.S. Forest Service's travel management rule, which designates specific areas and trails for motorized or mixed use.

"We need to step up and insist that our use be analyzed and locate us where we're the most sustainable and we have the least impact," Hawthorne said.

For his part, Turcke said the coalition supports "active and aggressive enforcement of reasonable restrictions of vehicle access." That means if someone is caught in the middle of a wilderness area, "no penalty is strict enough. We'd like to see aggressive fines, jail terms and, on a third offense, revocation of riding privileges."

Mumm said many of the problems now facing public lands are a result of lack of management by federal agencies. "The damage that has happened is a result. We need to bring back around common-sense management."

For him, the solution is relatively simple: Provide clear leadership. "If you tell people what they can do, they will do it."