IN the past 15 years, 42 percent of our forest system lands have been restricted or closed because of environmental abuse. In both 1972 and 1977, presidential executive orders placed specific vehicle-related restrictions on all federal lands. And, unless the current trend is reversed, land managers will undoubtedly impose additional limitations and closures. What's causing the problem? ATVs, four-wheel drive vehicles, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and motorcycles. Collectively, they're known as off-highway vehicles, or OHVs. And, while the vast majority of OHV drivers respect the environment, a small percentage causes major problems. Tremendous Growth
In just the past decade alone, off-highway driving has moved from being an activity shared by a random few to one of our nation's fastest growing sports. There were only 480,000 registered motorcycles in the United States in 1957. Today, there are more than 4 million. Four-wheel drive vehicles barely existed 30 years ago. Last year, 1.2 million were produced in the US alone. Currently there are more than 20 million OHV operators - the vast majority of whom enjoy their hobby in our national forest system.
Recreational use of the forest system has paralleled the growth of the automobile industry. During the 1930s, for example, there were only about 5 million visitors annually. By the late 1940s, that became 18 million. Today, it is 240 million - about one visit per citizen.
The national forest system covers an area the size of California, Oregon, and Washington combined. Most of the forests are in the West, and are within an hour drive of such major cities as Denver, Portland, and Los Angeles. OHV Damage
Most of the environmental abuse is caused by individuals who, for the most part, have good intentions. They simply don't know how to minimize or eliminate OHV damage. Youthful drivers fall into this category. A second, more notorious offender is the radical who disdains the environment and willfully destroys vegetation, soil, and water. Move Over Smokey
In a major effort to reduce the problem, the US Forest Service launched the ``Tread Lightly'' program in 1986.
The first major effort of its kind since Smokey the Bear, Tread Lightly is a national educational effort aimed at encouraging safe, responsible driving on the 200,000 miles of trails and roads available for off-highway vehicles.
As part of the program, Tread Lightly education kits are being distributed to public schools, civic groups, four-wheel drive associations, and so forth. Letters are also being written to manufacturers of many off-road vehicles asking them to incorporate the program's goals.
More recently, the US Forest Service teamed up with Range Rover of North America on The Great Divide Expedition. This was the first-ever North to South off-highway crossing of the Continental Divide by motorized vehicle. A 1,123-mile, two-week-long expedition, the event wound through 32 mountain passes, 11 national forests, and five major ski resorts. It enabled us to spread the Tread Lightly message all along the way.
Both Secretary of Agriculture, Clayton Yeutter, and Secretary of the Interior, Manuel Lujan, applauded the trip.
Sec. Yeutter commended ``all of you associated with the Great Divide Expedition for promoting safe, environmentally responsible off-highway driving.''
Secretary Lujan said, ``I applaud your daring efforts in demonstrating that both off-highway recreation and preservation of our environmental heritage are compatible when pursued as mutual objectives.''
Thirty-two journalists from the US, the United Kingdom, and Australia participated. At each step along the route, Forest Service officials demonstrated proper Tread Lightly procedures knowing that the journalists would, in turn, pass along the information to their readers. Guidelines
The Tread Lightly program provides off-roaders with basic techniques. Some examples: Avoid running over young trees, shrubs, and grasses. Stay off soft, wet roads, and trails that are easily torn up. Travel around meadows, steep hillsides or streambeds, and lakeshores that can be easily scarred by churning tires. Yield to wildlife and stay away from wild animals that are hibernating or rearing young.
We also ask OHV operators to use travel maps on national forest land and to obtain permission from landowners before crossing private property. In effect, our program seeks to create a conservation ethic and sense of caring so that the US Forest Service can continue to provide motorized recreational opportunities for all.
To succeed, Tread Lightly must stir grass-roots interest. We need the support of manufacturers, parts suppliers and, of course, OHV operators. We must reach a large audience - one that is growing every day. It can work. Our national forest system can be maintained. With the full cooperation of all OHV operators nationwide, our forests' legacy of grandeur can be passed along to generations yet to come.
Additional information about the US Forest Service's Tread Lightly program can be obtained by calling (801) 625-5162.