Don't judge me by the size of my tires

I'm an off-road enthusiast and a passionate environmentalist.

Living in northern California, I get to enjoy all that nature has to offer: abalone diving off the Mendocino coast, backpacking into Lassen Volcanic National Park – and trailing down Tahoe's Fordyce in a jacked-up, modified 1985 Toyota pickup.

You heard me. Off-road vehicles complete my love for the outdoors. You had me at 37-inch BFGoodrich Krawlers.

It wasn't always this way. Like many Americans do today, I used to believe that off-road vehicles and their drivers were the main destructor of the land we love and share. Today, I see that recreational four-wheeling can be compatible with environmental sensitivity.

Admittedly, I'm in the minority: It's not every day you meet a woman who is able to detect a snapped axle based on sound alone. Before you assume I am someone I am not, let me clarify a few things: I do not wear acid wash jeans, have big hair, or chase squatters off my ranch with a salt-packed rifle, a pocketful of obscenities, and a Ford F-450.

My tastes are a tad more developed. I am a devoted recycler and built my own compost pit in the suburbs. My organization of choice is not the National Rifle Association, but the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which represents over 500,000 motorized recreationists. It's dedicated to preserving responsible recreational access to public lands.

So how did I become a defender of the off-road lifestyle? Fourteen years ago, armed with a major in journalism and a minor in environmental sociology, I got my first freelance gig working for an econewsletter. This was way up north in California's Humboldt County, around the time the Surfrider Foundation was suing the wood mills for dumping pulp excess into the tide.

It was a lucrative job. After all, hippies and loggers can create the kind of natural controversy found at every wetlands corner. I witnessed firsthand what Caterpillar vehicles did to roads created for clear-cutting redwood forests. This is what I remember about my first experience with an off-road recreation vehicle, which came during a walk through the forest: tires spinning, mud splattering, and the heinous sound of mechanical death screams as ugly smoke filled my nostrils.

During my time of ecoterror penmanship, I saw off-road vehicles and their drivers as the enemy. But then, as any good journalist should, I got a clearer view of the enemy's perspective: I started riding with responsible off-road drivers and clubs.

I also interviewed members of the Toyota Trail Team for a series of articles on the new Toyota FJ Cruiser. I had never before heard professional (and often certified) drivers use such caring language to describe their reasons for traveling nationwide to Americans' favorite national parks and most famous trails. They talked earnestly about responsibility, trail ethics, and environmental sensitivity.

What I discovered is there are many reasons and faces behind land destruction and closure. It's all walks and wheels of life that refuse to stay on trail. Bureaucratic politics. Forest fires. Global warming.

Yet the Off Road Nation has long been the chief target of blame. That's why today, instead of just defending against criticism, more and more off-road drivers are taking a different approach: They're spearheading solutions.

Political activism is part of this effort. The US Forest Service is currently implementing the Off-Highway Vehicle Route Designation Project in every national forest.

This project may end up closing thousands of miles of forest roads and trails. That means these pathways to nature would be barred for nearly everyone, including off-roaders, photographers, campers, and bird watchers.

Off-road enthusiasts are responding as never before. They're raising funds for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which is committed to working with the Forest Service to keep access open. And they're attending public meetings, not just for themselves, but the bird watchers, photographers, and campers, too, because when a trail is kept open, it is kept open for all.

This approach is getting results. On Jan. 10, the Forest Service reversed a decision that would have closed more than 14 miles of motorized trails in a northern California forest.

It's been hard for an environmentally driven girl with an off-road fetish to find her place in the outdoor world, but a home for the conscious off-road enthusiast is being built.

Magazines that once turned their back on vehicle-driven content are taking a new look. Last September, Ace Atkins was able to place an essay in Outside Magazine defending his big, bad, thirsty truck. He made a point about the growing misconception that being green begins and ends by scooting about town in a hybrid. Instead, he suggested that we judge energy abuse with broader criteria: home size, commute time, air travel, and use of electronic gadgets.

His point aligns with my own ethic: It's all about living an overall lifestyle that coexists with nature, and there's room for us all – even those with 37-inch Krawlers.

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