Environmental News, Opinion, and Art                                                         April 25, 2006

A Blue Ribbon For Deceit

By Howie Wolke

By the fall of 1990, the off-road vehicle (ORV) problem had spread like a plague across the American landscape. That’s when the Michigan Association of Conservation Districts conducted a survey on just a third of the state’s land. The survey revealed that 600,000 acres were damaged by ORV’s, with repair costs – if the daunting job were to be undertaken – conservatively estimated at one billion dollars.

Since 1990, manufacturers have continually created bigger, more powerful machines, capable of going nearly anywhere.

Documented impacts of ORV’s include not just air, water and noise pollution, but also soil compaction, erosion, destruction of native vegetation and the spread of noxious weeds, the crushing of small animals and their nests/dens/burrows, plus the disruption of wildlife migrations, winter ranges and denning behavior. Today, throughout the U.S., literally tens of millions of acres have been compacted, eroded, rutted, crushed, denuded and converted to weeds, all in the name of gluttonous fossil fuel-intensive play. Based upon a small chunk of Michigan, one needn’t be a math genius to calculate that today, nationwide, this insanity would cost the American taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars to repair, if the political will to do the job existed.

Moreover, however poorly the multiple use concept has worked in practice, ORV’s emphatically create single use areas above and beyond anything other than an open pit mine. Not only do ORV’s destroy resources, but also their noise and stink precludes anyone else in their vicinity from enjoying the big outside.

The ORV lobby is clever, too, packaging its product in a wrapping of stealthy deceit. Take, for example, the Blue Ribbon Coalition (BRC), a leading advocacy group for off road motoring on public lands. Because they know that most Americans would recoil at more descriptive names such as “Citizens for Ripping Up the Soil” or “Machines First!”, they’ve chosen a name that sounds like a hog competition at the county fair. After all, blue ribbons signify victory, and everyone likes to win.

Put a ribbon on a pig and it’s still a pig.

BRC also has a clever motto: “Preserves our natural resources FOR the public instead of FROM the public”. Note that there’s nothing about off-road machines in the motto, either. That’s because ORV users are a tiny minority. For example, according to the Forest Service (2004), only 5% of national forest and national grassland visitors used off-highway vehicles. But an honest motto such as “A noisy minority imposing its will” wouldn’t do, either. Instead, the BRC motto implies that it represents “the public”, not of a tiny fraction thereof. Also implied is that the public is being excluded from its domain, which of course, is another lie. In fact, even within our most strictly protected lands – designated Wilderness areas – only machines are excluded, not people. Not horses or mules or llamas, either. Nor dogs, except in National Parks. No, the public isn’t being excluded, it’s being hoodwinked.

Put a pair of shades on the pig, and a pig it remains.

Unfortunately, the Blue Ribbon Coalition is much more than a sleazy voice for off road machines with a misleading motto. It is also a highly effective and well-funded front group for public land resource extraction. We’re talking logging, mining, oil and gas, you name it.

Founded in 1987 and based in Pocatello, Idaho, the BRC claims on its website that it represents 500,000 ORV users, calculated by adding all the members of the various organizations that the coalition claims as member groups. BRC admits to having only 5,000 actual dues-paying members. Compare this with the Sierra Club, which now has 767,000. But who needs dues-paying members when you’re in Exxon’s pocket?

BRC is a major player in the so called “wise use” movement, a euphemistic name for all of the varied interests – from miners and loggers to land developers and ORV groups – who oppose nearly every effort to enact and implement laws designed to protect the natural environment. An outgrowth of the “sagebrush rebellion” of Reagan/Watt vintage, “wise users” find bogeymen in every environmental law ever enacted, from the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts to the Wilderness Act. This ecophobia is dangerous because these groups are supported by some of the wealthiest corporate entities on Earth.

The Blue Ribbon Coalition was instrumental in securing the National Recreation Trails Funds Act (NRTFA). Under this law, the Recreation Trails Program (RTP) annually siphons off roughly $30 million in gasoline taxes for building and maintaining off road vehicle routes on public lands. That’s right, every time you pump gas, your dollars fund off-road motorized recreation.

The Blue Ribbon bunch works through agency planning processes to keep public lands, open to every kind of motorized vehicle imaginable, and presumably to many future devices that we’ve yet to imagine. Whenever land managers even consider restricting motorized use, BRC is there to defend their toys, often with vitriolic behavior, regardless of damage to soil, air, water, native plants and wildlife, and regardless of the rights of other humans. This outfit is un-compromised extremism; they believe it’s their god-given right to drive everywhere.

BRC was instrumental in the recent failure of the National Park Service to follow through on the elimination of snowmobiles from Yellowstone National Park.

BRC executive director Clark Collins even created a “Wilderness Act Reform Coalition”, which works both to gut the Wilderness Act, and to de-classify all Wilderness Study Areas. Says he: “There is a common misconception that Wilderness designation is a land protection scheme. In fact it is primarily a policy which promotes a particular type of recreation…”. Obviously, Collins knows of or cares little about conservation biology and the vital importance of Wilderness in maintaining clean water and native biodiversity.

In recent years, BRC has formed coalitions with misguided mountain bikers and equestrians, based upon the repeated lie that green groups wish to shut down public lands, especially those in protective categories, to all human use. Equally annoying, their publication has included a plethora of wide-reaching anti-environmental themes, including one titled “Kyoto Protocol Could Cause American Economic Havoc”. Of course, if you burned as many dinosaurs for your recreation as do these folks, you’d be loath to embrace global warming, too.

In addition, BRC has worked to open roadless areas to logging, mining, road building and oil exploration. They continue to vigorously oppose the national forest Roadless Rule, even though that rule would halt road building and most industrial extraction, but unfortunately, would have no effect upon off-road driving regulations.

On the surface, BRC’s opposition to the Roadless Rule is puzzling. After all, why would a motor group that wants to use the backcountry lobby against saving the backcountry from development, when the rule doesn’t even regulate their machines? By opposing the Roadless Rule they are, in effect, promoting new roads, clearcuts, mines, oil rigs, and more. This pro-development position, plus the damage created by their machines, are two of many compelling reasons to designate most roadless areas as legal Wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Living in the rural West for over 30 years, I’ve known and occasionally debated many off road motorists. And it’s clear to me that their ranks include reasonable people who are far less anti-environment in their overall outlook than are the representatives of most “wise use” groups, particularly the BRC. Many of these folks, however misguided, have no desire to promote massive wildland industrialization; nor do they wish to dismantle the Wilderness System and open other protected lands to all kinds of motorized mischief. In other words, extremist groups like BRC emphatically do not represent many ORV users. Why the disconnect?

Simply put, BRC is funded by some of the biggest corporate bank accounts on Earth. Dozens of trade associations plus a veritable who’s who in public land resource extraction keep the BRC rolling in the dough. According to Blue Ribbon magazine (which, by the way, is distributed to every member of Congress), during the 1990’s BRC received funding from: Boise Cascade, Potlatch, U.S. Forest Industries, the American Petroleum Institute, the Western States Petroleum Association, Chevron, and Exxon (now Exxon-Mobile). The Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Colorado Mining Associations chipped in, as did Crown Butte Mines, Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Polaris and Ski-Doo. And that’s just a sampling, the tip of the iceberg; there’s not enough space here to list them all. But you get the picture. No wonder BRC advocates programs that are clearly anti-recreation!

Yet, according to a recent “Overview” of the group by its Executive Director Clark Collins, “Our Public Lands Director makes sure recreationists (emphasis mine) are treated fairly and equally”. Right. By the Nevada Mining Association? In fact, throughout their literature, BRC claims to simply represent “recreationists”; occasionally they specify motorized and off road; only rarely is their any mention of their unholy alliance with massive-scale industrial developers.

Add lipstick to the pig, and it’s still nothing more than a pig.

A June, 2000 report by the PIRG Education Fund put BRC’s “wise use” connections this way: “The timber, mining, and oil and gas industries are very wisely using the BRC as a front group to address their agenda in keeping as much of our public lands as possible open to logging, mining and oil and gas exploration – uses hardly compatible with recreation interests”.

In summary, the Blue Ribbon Coalition is a highly effective extremist pro-development group that advocates both off road motoring in pristine wildlands and industrial development for those and other public lands. They utilize effective organizing and lobbying techniques, learned in part from their foes in the conservation/environmental movements, and they disguise their extremism with blatantly dishonest and misleading language in their publications, website, media work and in their very name and motto. They claim to but do not represent the interests of many motor recreationists who support at least some conservation programs, and they work effectively as a willing front group for some of the biggest corporate resource extractors on Earth.

Put make-up and a dress on the pig, and its still a pig.

Worst of all, the BRC is effective. It has convinced Congress to chop up with motor corridors various Wilderness bills; they intimidate agencies, especially the BLM and the Forest Service, into failing to enforce vehicle restrictions in Wilderness Study Areas and other sensitive lands; plus, they successfully lobby against Wilderness and for resource extraction. Perhaps their greatest coup was to convince Congress to create the RTP fund so that your tax dollars could fund their off-road motoring. BRC continues to deceive the public into believing that they defend recreation, and because they actively participate in nearly all public land controversies, it would behoove conservationists to understand the true agenda of the Blue Ribbon Coalition and to make certain that the general public does too.

Howie Wolke's piece on the Blue Ribbon Coalition will appear in an upcoming book edited by George Wuerthner.




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