Dirty Politics

Sometimes you have to get into the political dirt.

The vast majority of people who ride off road, either motorcycles or ATVs, are pretty much in the dark when it comes to what goes on behind the scenes with regards to politics and how it affects where you can ride. Once people find out there is a place that they can ride, they usually don't delve into such details as who owns the land, or who worked behind the scenes to make it possible to ride there.

Here is the cold, hard truth that the majority of people don't understand: The majority of places in Tennessee that you can ride are on private property. Yes, that's right—private property. The land either belongs to a coal company, timber company, or some other type of large land-management group that allows you to ride on the land they own. On more than one occasion I have heard people make the comment, "I've been riding on this land my whole life; they can't keep me off of it." What they fail to realize is that the land they have been using belongs to someone—someone who could close it overnight if they chose to.

What about all the land the state of Tennessee owns? Well, here is where people's eyes get opened. You can't ride on hardly any of it. The Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area (which luckily for us is close by) is one of the few pieces of property owned by the state of Tennessee where you can ride off-road, and the only reason that is the case is because the land was given to the state with the stipulation that it remain open for off-highway recreation.

What about our tax dollars? Aren't they used for riding areas? Well get a load of this: There are tax dollars dedicated to be used for motorized Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) recreation that are being used for other purposes, or simply not used.

The Recreational Trails Program (RTP) is a federal aid program of the Federal Highway Administration that is funded through the fuel tax collected from OHVs. The federal legislation states that each state's trails funding allocation must be divided into three categories: 30 percent for motorized trails, 30 percent for non-motorized trails, and 40 percent for multiple-use trails.

RTP funds are allocated to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), Recreation Services Division, who in turn distribute these funds to communities across the state.

Here is the rub. The OHV Act of 2004 (SB875) was a bill that was proposed by OHV riders across the state to create a statewide OHV program. This bill was passed, but last-minute changes in wording mandated that the entire 30 percent of money allocated for motorized trails be given to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. (TWRA).

One report from TDEC shows that for the grant period 2007-2009, TWRA has over $1,000,000 available for OHV trails that has gone unspent.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission (TWRC) passed a resolution that states that the only TWRA locations in the state that can have OHV use is the Royal Blue area. No doubt this resolution was made to keep OHV use off of TWRA Wildlife Management Areas that have never allowed motorized recreation. However, this money is there to support OHV recreation across the state, and this TWRC resolution essentially makes that impossible. The way things currently are, TWRA controls the RTP money for motorized trails, and they can only use it on the Royal Blue Area.

There is now a new bill in committee (SB280, HB365) that proposes that control of the Tennessee OHV Program be switched from TWRA to TDEC. The original thought in 2004 was that TWRA already managed boating, and they could use this model to manage a new statewide OHV program. They are already set up to collect license fees, and they already had people in the woods. Obviously the dream of a statewide OHV program funded by user fees, and managed by TWRA hasn't happened yet.

Years ago some people within TWRA were heard to say, "We manage wildlife, not motorized vehicles." Maybe this way of thinking has changed somewhat with the surge in popularity of off-road riding, and the potential money that can be made by selling permits. In 2008 TWRA did hire a full-time trail officer to patrol the Royal Blue area. How much money is spent to keep trails open (and by keeping trails open I don't mean graveling roads) is a good question to ask.

What we off-road riders need is for whichever agency is given the responsibility to administer the RTP funds do so in a responsible manner that accomplishes the desired goals, supporting the creation and management of environmentally sustainable off-road riding areas across the state. Just don't let the money sit there until some other agency grabs it. Build trails. Bring in revenue to rural communities. Provide off-road recreation opportunities.

The citizen lobbyist organization that is leading the way for these changes is OHV-4-TN. For more information and links to your state representatives, go to their website, OHV4TN.org.

Russ Townsend has been riding on and off road motorcycles for over 25 years.