Rec Room

Squeezed out by developers and environmentalists, recreational users gird for a rumble in the desert.

The auditorium was packed with off-highway vehicle users dressed all in red -- they say to draw attention to their plight, others say because they're rednecks. OHV users say they're all for saving the land, but not if it means they can't use it. The city's petition makes it clear that once the city has control of the land, OHV use will be banned.

"It's not a park, it's a preserve," says Carla (her legal name), executive director of MSLT. "A park tries to get as many people to enjoy it as possible. In a preserve, the first objective is preservation."

According to Carla, the key to preservation is appropriate access, which includes staying on trails, no trails near environmentally sensitive areas, not letting dogs roam free, and no motorized vehicles.

Cheryl Ward holds up evidence that dirt bikers have been using horse trails.
Paolo Vescia
Cheryl Ward holds up evidence that dirt bikers have been using horse trails.
Members of the Arizona Mountaineering Club hold an instructional class at Little Granite Mountain.
Paolo Vescia
Members of the Arizona Mountaineering Club hold an instructional class at Little Granite Mountain.

Preservationists say motorized vehicle use is simply too harmful to the environment. Motorized vehicle users say kicking them off the land is the first step in the systematic removal of all recreation groups, leaving only the flower-petters.

As is, State Trust lands are multi-use, and have been enjoyed by all kinds of rec groups for years. There aren't many rules. Visitors are supposed to have a permit, but with only a couple of enforcement officers for the whole state, there is little incentive to purchase the pass. The land isn't managed -- a fact Carla says will change if and when it becomes part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

"Some people are just focused on the enjoyment they'll see in their lifetimes," she explains. "We're concerned about future generations." Recreational users, she points out, can be just as damaging to the land as developers. "We don't want to save the land only to watch people love it to death," she says.

And Arizona residents do love the outdoors. According to the Arizona State Parks Trails 2000 plan, 77 percent of Arizonans use trails. Of that figure, motorized vehicle users are not insignificant, at 21 percent. Game and Fish Department figures show the state is gaining about 10,000 ATVs a year, and currently there are records for about 70,000.

All this is bad news to Carla. As she drives on a road near the state lands, a red truck with two dirt bikes in the bed pulls up next to Carla's SUV.

"Oh, God, don't let me get into a fight," she half-jokes. OHV users have become a thorn in her side because they have voiced their disapproval of the petition to save this land.

"They have more testosterone than brains," she says.

On a peaceful Sunday in the McDowell Mountains, the solitude is broken only by the buzzing of 25-horsepower machines that rip past every five minutes. Forget whatever damage they cause to soil, wildlife or vegetation. People hate dirt bikes because they are just plain loud.

"If I was out climbing and heard one dirt bike go by, I might think, 'That asshole,'" says climber Paul Diefenderfer, owner of the Phoenix Rock Gym. "But when it's every 20 minutes, I start thinking we should be able to hunt those bastards."

Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts are the redheaded stepchildren of the recreational world. They are at the bottom of the food chain, the first to lose access, and the last to gain sympathy. They are the only group specifically singled out for expulsion in Scottsdale's petition for the trust land, and the U.S. Forest Service has been studying the impact they cause on land.

If they lose access to the Scottsdale trust land, OHV users complain, the closest place for them to ride will be one hour away at Lake Pleasant. Most people are glad to see them go.

"I can't think of anybody but dirt bikers who likes dirt bikers," says Diefenderfer.

Such attacks leave dirt biker Jeff Gursh of the Arizona Trail Riders (ATR) feeling just slightly oppressed. He says "extreme environmentalists" have even gone so far as to put spikes on the trails at dirt biking competitions.

"I actually feel like I know what a black person felt like in the '50s. I get called names, we get hate mail on our Web site," Gursh says.

Tom Bickauskas of the ATR feels his brother's pain.

"Removing OHVs from the land is the new ethnic cleansing," he says.

Bickauskas and Gursh fail to see the absurdity in comparing themselves to ethnic Albanians and enslaved African Americans. They are, after all, just part of a group of middle-aged white men who are being told they can't play in the desert anymore, hardly one of history's worst examples of oppression and genocide. But the sense of injustice is genuine.

"It's unfair to consider one group's recreation more important than another's," Bickauskas insists.

When you work a nine-to-fiver that pays the bills and live to recreate on the weekends, this fight isn't just about a hobby. It's about an identity.

Many, like Bickauskas, moved here specifically because the area used to be full of great places to ride. Bickauskas says that he never wanted to be "Mr. Activist," but he has spearheaded the campaign to save access to this land for OHV use.

He has coordinated flier campaigns to get the word out, and contacted the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a legal advocacy group for OHV users best known for filing a lawsuit challenging former president Bill Clinton's designation of vast national monument lands in Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and Washington.

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