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By Robert Janis

Local Issues Tackled from the Bottom Up
Wisconsin All-Terrain Vehicle Association Keeps Things Local With an Eye On the National

Randy addressing the crowd at our April 2007 Annual Meeting and Workshops-Steven’s Point, WI. From key note speakers (various state agencies) to basic life saving techniques taught by WATVA club members and certified first responders, this was one of our best annual meetings ever! We even had reps from a ham radio club offering tips on using radios while on the trails.
Randy addressing the crowd at our April 2007 Annual Meeting and Workshops-Steven’s Point, WI. From key note speakers (various state agencies) to basic life saving techniques taught by WATVA club members and certified first responders, this was one of our best annual meetings ever! We even had reps from a ham radio club offering tips on using radios while on the trails.

It is said that politics is local. Randy Harden, president of the Wisconsin All-Terrain Vehicle Association, understands that and works the association and its member clubs hard on the local issues. Headquartered in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the WATVA focuses most of its efforts on Madison, the state’s capital. At the same time, Harden does not neglect the importance of the county and township governments who also deal with issues that effect ATVers. So he and the WATVA do what they can to encourage members of the local clubs to get involved to influence this level of government. However, Harden also understands that at times federal government action trumps the locals. So he is well aware of the need for a national presence. For Randy Harden, and the WATVA, no stone is left unturned when it comes to defending the rights and privileges of ATVers.

However, the association recognizes that ATV riders just want to have fun. So the group organizes trail rides and rallies and supports off-highway vehicle youth programs.

The Birth and the Structure

It all began for the Wisconsin All-Terrain Vehicle Association in 1985. Harden explained that the first president of the group was both a dirt bike rider as well as an ATVer. “Back in the ’80s dirt bikes were more prominent in Wisconsin than ATVs,” began Harden. “Back then, people rode their ATVs wherever. So the major concern for the first president of the group was to find places where ATVers could ride with their friends legally. He worked with the Wisconsin Motorcycle Dealers Association and he lobbied the state government in Madison. The guy was way ahead of his time on things like this and he was cutting edge. He was the reason we got legislation that put a registration program into existence and it is that law that pays for the acquisitions and maintenance costs of the trails we now use as well as the enforcement and education programs we now have in this state for ATVers. But while the gentleman focused on the issues, he sort of neglected the formation of the organization. The WATVA soon had financial problems and the first leader had to walk away from the job in 1989.” It was at that time that Harden became vice president of the organization. He had served as a member of the board of directors and was elected vice president before becoming president in 1992.

Harden developed a two-pronged approach as leader. He monitored the local governments and worked to influence their actions and he constructed an infrastructure for the association.

The infrastructure is based on a bottoms up construction. Today there are 90 to 100 local chapters or clubs throughout Wisconsin that are members of the Wisconsin ATV Association. The association will actually assist in the creation of a local chapter and help construct the club’s infrastructure. If a person is a member of a local chapter, they are automatically a member of the WATVA. Individuals can also become members. The membership fee is $25 a year. Members also include people who are in the industry such as dealers and people involved in the sport of ATV. Members receive the association magazine, Trail Tales, and a $1,000 accidental death and dismemberment life insurance policy. The association is now working on getting local dealers and other businesses to offer discounts to members. Harden estimates that there are about 10,000 members. According to Harden, there are 240,000 publicly registered ATV owners in Wisconsin plus another 60,000 or so who are privately registered for a total of about 300,000 owners of ATVs in Wisconsin.

Working with local law enforcement agencies.
Working with local law enforcement agencies.

The roll or focus of the WATVA, said Harden, is to make the views of the local chapters known to the group’s board of directors as well as the state. “We seek out the views of people who belong to the local chapters on particular legislative issues. To do that we have five regional coordinators who go to the local chapters’ meetings. We also do extensive surveys to find out what chapter members think. When we settle on the issue, we alert the base about it through electronic communications as well as mailings and we use our magazine to also get the word out.”

Then members and officers of the association lobby the state government for or against statutes that affect the issues the clubs are most concerned about. Members of the local clubs or chapters work the county and township governments with the help of the WATVA. “When it comes to effecting change on the county and township level, we count on the members of the local chapters because they are citizens of those counties and townships so they have the most influence,” said Harden.

Harden explained that the WATVA is aware of just about everything that is going on in Madison that could affect ATVers. “We have our own intelligence,” he quipped. According to Harden, the Wisconsin legislature is divided into two houses -- the assembly and the senate. The senate has 33 members and the assembly has 99. Harden asserted that the WATVA has developed a good working relationship with a large number of the members of both houses as well as their staffs. So if something happens that could concern ATVers, staff members, senators and/or assembly people will alert the association. Moreover, when it is time to vote on legislation that affects ATVers, many of the senators and assembly people will contact the WATVA to obtain information on the issue being considered. Also, sponsors of the legislation, the people who actually write the laws, will use the WATVA as a source when they are drafting the legislation.

Newly certified TPA’s from the NE Region.
Newly certified TPA’s from the NE Region.

Harden added that other organizations that may have a vested interest in a piece of legislation and who realize that the WATVA would also have a stake will alert the organization as well. In addition, the WATVA subscribes to a service that flags anything that comes through the internet with the keywords “ATV” or other words and phrases that have to do with land access and alerts the organization.

However, Harden pointed out that more often than not, the association is proactive about legislation. That is, the WATVA will actually draft legislation itself and get “friendlies” in the state assembly or senate to introduce the legislation for passage. “We introduce a fair number of bills each year. We sit down with our clubs, county and land managers, state land managers and people of organizations that we consider to be partners and we figure out how we can improve our ATV registration program or we decide on what issues need to be resolved by state law. Right now we have three bills pending in the legislature that we brought over ourselves.

Finding “friendlies” who will introduce the bills can get rather complicated, said Harden. “There’s the governor’s office, the assembly and the senate. Some times we go to the governor’s office first to see if they would support a law. We want to be sure that the governor will sign the bill after it is passed by the legislature. Once we get the feelings of the governor we then go to the legislature to find our ‘friendlies’ to introduce the legislation. The senate is now dominated by the Democrats, so our ‘friendly’ there needs to be a Democrat. The assembly is dominated by the Republicans. So our ‘friendly’ there needs to be a Republican. Then we select a ‘friendly’ that is fluent and understands the issue. If we can’t find one like that, we will educate the person on the issue.”

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