Lawmakers increasingly target unruly off-roaders

Albequerque_Gordon Spingler is 75, but he still loves riding dirt bikes and taking along his children and grandchildren to share his reverence for nature.

"It's the experience of the outdoors," said Spingler, whose backyard is a gateway to hundreds of miles of singletrack through some of New Mexico's most beautiful areas.

But Spingler and other off-road enthusiasts are worried that an effort by legislators to overhaul the state's off-highway vehicle law could curtail access to New Mexico's backcountry for the next generation of riders.

"It could be very contentious," Spingler said.

From New Mexico to New Jersey, lawmakers in many states are considering measures aimed at reining in off-road recreation as constituents express concerns about safety and complain that off-road vehicles are tearing up the landscape and harassing wildlife.

The measure introduced in the New Mexico Senate would allow youngsters to continue riding motorcycles as long as they have safety gear, training and supervision. However, children under 14 would no longer be allowed to ride all-terrain vehicles or other off-road recreational vehicles with four or more tires.

The measure also calls for higher registration fees, and spells out penalties for violating the state's off-highway vehicles law or OHV - a $200 fine for the first offense, $500 for the second and $800 for a third or subsequent violation.

Supporters say the measure will help ensure the safety of children and establish provisions so the law can be enforced.

But off-roaders say putting an age limit on ATV riders is unfair to families who enjoy off-road recreation, given that existing laws already call for safety training, proper equipment and supervision of all young riders.

"This is a popular kind of amendment for states that have no OHV statutes. But for us, where we already have these statutes on the books, it only unfairly targets the responsible user," said Rick Alcon, president of R&S Powersports and chairman of the state Off Highway Motor Vehicle Safety Board.

State Sen. Dede Feldman, the Albuquerque Democrat behind New Mexico's first OHV law, said the existing law isn't being enforced and some of the safety measures were never implemented. She said legislation is needed to "put us back on track to do what we originally intended to do."

Nearly 40 states have considered legislation dealing with safety and reckless riders over the past two years, according to Virginia-based Responsible Trails America.

The measures have included requiring off-road vehicles to have license plates, tougher penalties and more support for law enforcement.

Legislation has become more important given that the battle between off-roaders and their opponents has reached a volatile level, said Harrison Schmitt, executive director of the advocacy group.

"There's no question that the incidence of violent user conflicts as a direct result of reckless off-road vehicle use are popping up everywhere," he said. "That's a very real and frightening part about this problem. It's not just about natural resources anymore, it's really about people - and increasing numbers of people - using the same area."

Residents on Glorieta Mesa near Santa Fe, for example, have been complaining the rural area is being overrun by off-roaders. Fences are being cut, holding ponds are being used as mug bogs and livestock is being chased - all offenses that would be prohibited under the legislation.

There are similar complaints in the Tehachapi Mountains of central California, where residents have started a community watch to tackle unruly off-roading.

Off-roaders argue that irresponsible riders are giving the off-roading community a black eye.

"There is certainly an element of every group that the group probably wishes weren't part of them, but I think New Mexicans by and large want to do the right thing. They're law-abiding citizens," said Mark Werkmeister, president of the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance.

The alliance said more than a quarter of New Mexicans participate in OHV activities, and many of them belong to groups like the Blackfeather Trail Preservation Alliance, which spends thousands of volunteer hours maintaining trails in the Jemez Mountains.

"Can OHVs damage the environment? Sure. There are a lot of things that can damage the environment," Werkmeister said. "I think OHV recreation, like any other form of recreation, can be practiced in a sustainable manner and I've been doing so over the last 30 years."

It comes down to personal responsibility, said Leo Hubbard, a Glorieta Mesa resident and longtime off-roader who supports the legislation.

"At some point, we have to say look this is my sport and my sport is doing some damage so what responsibility do I have in this matter," Hubbard said, adding that he doesn't understand why law-abiding off-roaders are fighting a proposal that targets only those breaking the law.

Spingler said the stakes are high because some supporters of the legislation want to push off-roaders out of the woods all together.

But he said critics should realize responsible off-roading can be a tool for teaching people to appreciate New Mexico's landscape.

"I died and went to heaven when I came here. It's cool," Spingler said.


On the Net:

New Mexico Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance:

Responsible Trails America:

Susan Montoya Bryan, AP Writer © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.