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Monday, March 2, 2009
Updated: March 3, 5:43 PM ET
Land Grab

By Vince Castellanos
ESPN

Almost every motocross rider learned how to ride in the hills near their residence. Without open land, however, professionals like Ronnie Renner (pictured) wouldn't exist in our sport today.

Yeah, we know: Following legislation that impacts dirtbikes isn't fun. But guess what happens when lawmakers go unchecked? Well, that fiddy in your garage? Forget about getting parts for it, and don't bother upgrading to a 110cc — they've been yanked off dealers' floors. And your favorite riding area? There's a chance that's going away, too.

You probably know about the lead content restrictions that went into effect on February 10; because of them, dirtbikes and associated parts designed for those 12 years old and younger currently can't be sold. But have you heard about Senate Bill 22 (S. 22)? Well get familiar, because 2.1 million acres of land in nine states — California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia — are about to be declared Wilderness areas and thus off-limits to motorcycles. That's 2.1 million acres, or about 3,281 square miles, nearly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

These areas are great opportunities for kids. Taking them away is one reason people end up in the streets causing trouble.

--Matt Buyten-X Games gold medalist

"I think it's terrible," says X Games gold medalist and freerider Matt Buyten, who grew up riding around Reno, Nevada. Buyten notes that famous spots he hit just a couple of years ago as part of Fuel TV's popular show Great Ride Open may soon be banned. "These areas are great opportunities for kids. Taking them away is one reason people end up in the streets causing trouble. So many of the tracks I started on in Reno are gone. Doug Parsons took me out to Beaumont [California, a legendary riding spot now largely illegal] and showed me some awesome stuff, but no longer. It sucks; it's such a bummer."

S. 22, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, gathers 160 different bills into a roughly 1,300 page collection. "I guarantee you that the senators who voted on this haven't read the whole thing," says one motorcycle industry insider. But vote on it they did, and on January 15th it passed the Senate by an overwhelming 73-21 margin. It is now awaiting passage in the House of Representatives.

Groups like the AMA, Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) and BlueRibbon Coalition (BRC) have been trying to decipher the dense bill. "S. 22 targets a bunch of acreage where riding will be prevented, but it's tough to get a handle on which areas are affected, especially at a national level," says Kathy Van Kleeck, MIC's senior vice president of government relations. "Some of these areas don't have OHV access. But frankly, we don't know what percentage of the 2.1 million acres currently has riding."

It's unknown what areas will likely be affected by Senate Bill 22 (S.22), but let's hope legendary riding spots Ocotillo Wells, California and Caineville, Utah aren't on the list. Could you imagine a world without beautiful images like this?

The MIC is hardly alone; S. 22's enormous size and a lack of transparency make knowing details difficult, and the general public has been kept largely in the dark — there was no comment period as is often the case with land access issues. "It's hard to wrap your brain around 1,300 pages and the complexity of the bill," says AMA Western States Representative Nick Haris. "Parts of the bill are valid, but it needs to be debated and understood. This [a giant collection of bills combined into one] isn't the way access is usually decided."

"As a general proposition, there are places that need to be protected," adds Mike Schmitt, Yamaha's government relations manager. "But when you throw 160 different bills together without debating the pros and cons, you end up with problems. The new Senate was barely seated and they popped this out right away."

Often, as AMA Spokesman Pete terHorst explains, Wilderness areas are established to keep already pristine areas from being developed or used for recreational purposes. However, S. 22 appears to prohibit riding in already established dirtbike destinations. "California and Utah are definitely affected," says terHorst. "There are big chunks out West."

Both Haris and Schmitt believe that riding in parts of Southern California's Riverside County will be banned. While Mike Swenson, executive director of the Utah Shared Access Alliance (USA-ALL), doesn't think that the legendary Cainville, Utah, hotspot will be affected, other areas in Utah are. "We know that some riding around St. George [in southwest Utah near the Arizona border] will end," Swenson says. "And Canaan Mountain Sawmill Road is going to be designated [Wilderness]. That's a prime area, and it will be done."

Nothing can compare to the feeling of jumping a natural terrain hill formed by unhuman powers.

BlueRibbon Coalition Public Lands Policy Director Brian Hawthorne lists several areas where riding will soon be prohibited, including outside Las Cruces, New Mexico; Mt. Hood, Oregon; and parts of eastern California, like in the Sierra Nevadas. He's also disappointed about Utah's Canaan Mountain Sawmill Road. "I call it an icon, a classic," Hawthorne says. "It's an epic route; it's so valuable and rare, and it breaks my heart to see it close because there are ways to make it work."

Though there is no timetable for a House of Representatives vote, S. 22 is expected to come to the floor soon. "It was going to be voted on right after the Senate acted, but the stimulus bill pushed it back," says Van Kleeck. "Now no one knows when exactly it's going to come up." Congressmen quoted in a February 25 Congressional Quarterly story admitted as much. While the bill has House support from both Democrats and Republicans, parts of the massive legislation are creating pause among members of both parties.

In the meantime, industry officials urge riders to contact their Congressional representatives. "Our website has simple ways to help," says the AMA's terHorst. "You can just enter in your zip code and it identifies your local representatives. Sending letters really does help." And if you live in one of the nine states directly affected, feel free to call your reps' offices. Ask if they know which areas are getting shut down. If they don't know, they should.

Visit the AMA at www.amadirectlink.com/legisltn/rapidresponse.asp for sample letters and to learn your representatives' names.