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Ideaological splits plague group that governs offroading
Ideological splits plague group that governs off-roading
By Michael Gardner
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
February 21, 2006
JOHN GASTALDO / Union-Tribune
SACRAMENTO – When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Daphne Greene to manage the state's troubled off-road vehicle program, the first question she faced was whether she would be the new sheriff or the executioner.
Amid a tic surge in popularity, the sport's future has been clouded by a festering ideological feud. The state governing body that oversees grants and policies important to off-roading has split along lines loyal to either riders or environmentalists.
Lingering distrust has poisoned potential compromises that could benefit off-roaders, protect the environment and appease communities being invaded by the noise and pollution of the sport, say some of those involved.
“We can't come together on the simplest things,” lamented Michael Prizmich, the sheriff of Amador County and a member of the state's off-road oversight commission.
Clashes have escalated just as the Schwarzenegger administration prepares to make critical decisions on how to restructure the program and shake up the seven-member commission.
The 35-year-old program could even dissolve, although that's considered unlikely. A 1971 law that authorized the off-road program expires at the end of this year. Schwarzenegger has yet to advance a renewal proposal, frustrating off-roaders.
Some of the discord can be traced to the program's structure. California splits the management responsibility between the commission and a division of the state Parks and Recreation Department. Greene is in charge of the division, but must work with the commission. The program's budget is $55.6 million.
Off-roading has long drawn criticism from many quarters. Rogue riders leave an impression of noisy, smoggy machines plowing roughshod through pristine forests and sand dunes. Television ads for ATVs and trucks promote the wild image.
Now the sport is booming. Over the past five years, the number of permits sold for off-road vehicles nearly doubled, from 479,178 in 2001 to 900,861 in 2005 in California. Four million riders enjoyed state-run off-road parks last year, and countless more journeyed to national forests and other getaways. Network television carries off-road competition and a recent one-night event in San Francisco drew 37,000 fans.
Officially known as the state's Off-Road Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission, the oversight panel is made up of political appointees – four selected by the Legislature; three by the governor – who determine how millions of dollars are spent across the state. The money comes from two primary sources: a share of the state gas tax and permits, which run $25 every two years.
Greene touched off the latest flare-up when she blocked 46 local grants worth $5.4 million that the commission had approved. Backed by legal counsel, Greene dismissed the grants as “arbitrary and capricious.”
“How can the division go behind the backs of the appointed commission?” demanded Commissioner Harold Thomas, a Sacramento-area prosecutor who specializes in environmental law. “I can find no authority for what they've done. It's unprecedented.”
The deadlock threatens to hold up the entire $18 million in grant funds available for rider safety, trail improvement and enforcement programs. It's also strained relationships with federal authorities who manage national land used for off-road recreation.
Greene, a former off-road commissioner, said the action reflects the governor's goal of restoring credibility and accountability to the grants process.
For years, Greene said, “it was all about who's your friend” when it came time to dole out the money. “How fair is that?” she asked.
Off-road enthusiasts also have filed a lawsuit claiming commissioners secretly met to determine grants and let personal bias influence their decision.
Commissioners have distributed $141 million in grants since 1996 and still have the $18 million for this year.
“It's a challenge,” Greene said of trying to deal with the competing factions. “What we see now, unfortunately, is a situation where the individual opinions and agendas have clouded the greater responsibility.”
Others are less judicious. “The commission should come to a screeching halt. It should end,” said Commissioner Robert Chavez, an Encino resident aligned with off-roaders.
Commission Chairman Paul Spitler of Davis, a former director of the California Wilderness Coalition, said the commission justifiably changed course to become more environmentally friendly after years of domination by off-road users.
“In the past year and a half you've seen unprecedented efforts to usurp the role of the commission and roll back a lot of the environmental protections the Legislature initiated,” Spitler said. “It certainly appears this administration is trying to take us back to the bad old days.”
But Chavez, who has not attended a meeting for a year, said environmental factions seem bent on banning off-road use from public lands.
“It will be a happy day for them” when that happens, he said.
The state auditor brought the infighting to light last August in a blistering report that found favoritism in awarding contracts and lax oversight, among other problems.
Sen. Bill Morrow, an Oceanside Republican who pushed for the audit, has accused the commission of ignoring the auditor's recommendations.
“They haven't done a lick,” said Morrow, a candidate for San Diego's 50th Congressional District.
Morrow, an off-road enthusiast, has railed against certain state policies. In 1996 he was cited by a park ranger for doing “doughnuts” – driving in tight circles at high speed – in a four-wheel-drive vehicle that sported special legislative license plates. State parks Director Ruth Coleman has ordered Greene “to fix” the situation, parks spokesman Roy Stearns said. Purging the commission is one option, Stearns said.
“If the only way to get to where we're going is to change the commission, to put a more fair commission up there, that's OK with us,” he said.
But some commissioners don't agree with the audit's findings. Being unpaid, part-time and busy in their private lives, they say, makes it difficult to respond rapidly. A meeting is planned later this year on the audit, 12 months after its public release.
The growing friction is evident to those who follow the commission.
“The commission is dysfunctional and divided,” said Fred Wiley, executive director of the Off-Road Business Association, based in Santee.
Albert Llata of Los Angeles said off-road enthusiasts deserve commissioners who will work on their behalf.
“Does Oscar Mayer hire vegetarians?” he asked.
Others are more blunt. Dave Pickett, a Folsom off-roader speaking at a recent commission meeting, accused the pro-environment majority of being “obstructionists” and demanded their resignations.
The environmental camp writes off the complaints as sour grapes from off-roaders.
“The game has changed. For 30 years, they had it their way,” said Karen Schambach, a community activist in the foothills north of Sacramento.
The Schwarzenegger administration itself has escalated tensions by raiding accounts meant for off-roading and spending the money on in-house office functions and parks that ban dune buggies, four-wheelers, ATVs and snowmobiles.
State officials justified the diversions, saying some helped create off-road opportunities. They couldn't explain, however, why Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, received off-road revenues.
Parks officials say the diversions of money have ended, although the account is still owed $21 million borrowed during former Gov. Pete Wilson's administration.
“Absolutely – they should be angry,” Greene said of off-roaders frustrated over the use of funds earmarked for their sport.
However, there is talk within the administration of increasing registration fees on off-road vehicles, to perhaps $18 a year from the current $12.50.
In addition to registration fees, the program receives millions annually in gas taxes based on estimates of how much fuel is used by street-legal, four-wheel-drive and other vehicles when drivers go off paved surfaces.
A huge slice of the program's budget also subsidizes the federal government. Since 1996, commissioners have awarded $61.8 million to the Bureau of Land Management and an additional $59.3 million to the U.S. Forest Service.
Schwarzenegger brought in Greene when lawmakers were preparing to approve the audit that was expected to shake up things.
Greene has credentials as an off-roader and environmentalist. She was a world-class competitor in four-wheel-drive racing, is an avid rock climber and a mountaineer, having scaled daunting peaks like Kilimanjaro, Denali, Rainier and Shasta.
Greene said the disputes overshadow a broader issue. Given growth and environmental pressures, what is the state's commitment to the sport, she said, particularly as a new generation that has never heard of Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl puts keys in the ignition.
“Where's our land ethic?” she asked.