Trail watchers are stewards of the forest
May 25, 2009 by Scott Sandsberry
YAKIMA, Wash. — Last year’s Labor Day weekend was just like any other for Clay Graham and his trail-riding buddies.
All Wheelers Off Road Club members Kris Coleman and Ron Coleman take a breather after helping a volunteer work detail create the barrier of downed logs between an ORV trail in the Ahtanum State Forest and a meadow (to the right). The logs were put there to keep irresponsible riders from heading off-trail and tearing up the meadow. (Photo courtesy Clay Graham)
They rode some trails, shared some laughs, enjoyed some views and got a little disgusted.
The latter wasn’t scheduled. Only inevitable.
For Graham, the Yakima-based All Wheelers Off Road Club he founded in 2004 and the numerous other off-road vehicle (ORV) clubs who try to adhere to the “Tread Lightly” ethic, a trail ride all too often means encountering someone whose tracks aren’t quite so benign … and aren’t confined on the trail.
When that happens, Graham and his friends typically point out how spinning around in meadows and creating mud holes not only scars the landscape but can lead to trail system closures by state and federal land-management agencies.
“Most people go, ‘OK, yeah, I understand.’ They never give you a problem with it,” Graham says.
On this occasion in the Ahtanum State Forest, though, the ATV users who had convened in a meadow and created a muddy trail “didn’t really care,” he says. “That’s what really irritated me. I’ve run into a lot of people who don’t know the rules, or say they don’t. But not to care …”
A week later, a group of All Wheelers volunteers were back up at the same spot, using their rigs and winches to create a line of logs that effectively blocked the meadow from trail users. It might not keep the scofflaws from getting to it, the group reasoned, but it would certainly make it obvious that anybody still riding out onto the meadow knew they weren’t supposed to be there.
But Graham and his buddies didn’t stop there. They and others began making calls and posting on message-board forums around the ORV community, getting the word out that responsible user groups needed to take a more active role in educating and, when necessary, policing itself.
Hence, ORV Trail Watch was created.
“It gets pretty clearly defined when you’re out there,” says Richland ORV enthusiast Danielle McGhan, who has helped drive the watchdog group’s membership well on its way towards 200.
“There’s the people that do care, the people who don’t know, and the people who just don’t give a ****,” says McGhan, recalling a situation last year in which club riders tried to dissuade some four-wheelers tearing up a meadow and ultimately posted them online on the site of a reputable Tri-Cities club called Peak Putters.
“When a guy’s out there spinning donuts, can of beer in his hand, there’s no education there,” McGhan says. “We didn’t know who they were, there was no plates on the trucks, no ORV tags. So I took the pictures and posted them up and asked, does anybody know who these guys are?”
Offenders can expect a lot more of that.
“What ORV Trail Watch is going to be about is policing our own,” says Dave Walters, the Peak Putters’ land-use coordinator. “We will be taking down numbers and we will be taking this information to authorities. We’re tired of it. There’s 97 percent of us that are responsible, wage-earning adults who take this thing seriously. And we want to put a kibosh on the ones who are going to mess it up for everybody.”
The idea is nothing new. There are various “Forest Watch” groups around the state; the Cle Elum Ranger District has one, there’s another at Tahuya State Forest in Mason County and a few areas have hotlines to report illegal trail activity.
Still, ORV Trail Watch’s is already being felt. John Greenough, an outdoor recreation deputy with the Yakima County Sheriff, said the department has already had four Trail Watch reports that have led to identification, investigation and fines issued as a result of the referrals. Several other reports are still being investigated, he said.
“We welcome and are happy to receive those (reports),” Greenough said. “It’s going to take responsible users to educate the people who just don’t know in some cases, and in some cases are malicious.
“We do want to caution people, though, not to turn this into confrontational situations. Some people aren’t going to want having their pictures taken, and … safety is more important than getting the pictures. We don’t want anybody getting hurt.”
“Don’t risk your life to take a picture,” he says. “There’s been a few times I have not taken pictures, because I thought those were times these guys might have come over and started whomping on me.”
But that’s when Graham has been alone. With ORV Trail Watch membership growing so quickly, those notepad- and camera-wielding watchdogs figure to have some safety in numbers.
“We want these people to know,” Walters says of the law-breaking riders. “There’s people out there who will kick you right in the sitter if you do something dumb that gets the rest of us in trouble.”
Or maybe just take your picture.