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By: Robert Janis

The Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association: Persistent Fighters for Open Back-Country Trails

Things are not tranquil in the Big Sky country of Montana. There is action afoot that would limit the use of back-country trails for recreational purposes. However, there is a group that is fighting the surge and winning their share of battles.

Founded in 1986, the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association is an umbrella group of 19 local clubs that have banded together to face off attempts to restrict use of public lands. “At the time of the founding of the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, there were only four clubs,” commented Russ Ehnes, immediate past president of the association and one of about 12 people who were instrumental in forming the group. Ehnes has been riding off-highway motorcycles since he was 4 years-old and has also been riding ATVs for more than 10 years. He recently became a proud owner of a Polaris 500 ATV with power steering. “Now there are 19 clubs and that shows that we’ve managed to get people inspired to start clubs and get involved.”

Since it is the local clubs that are the backbone of the association, the MTVRA has a program to assist in the creation of clubs. People who are interested in creating a club should contact the MTVRA Association staff, and then meet with the creators of the new club to assist in the organization and provide them with an NOHVCC club start up kit. Then the association continues the contacts via e-mail and phone to assist in any way.

The Organization
The mission of the MTVRA is to create a positive future for Montana off-highway vehicle recreation by creating an ongoing communications forum through which OHV enthusiasts and organizations can share information and experiences; participate in educational opportunities; build partnerships with land managers, land owners, and supporters; and become partners in protecting, promoting, and creating a positive image of OHV recreation.
The purpose of the organization is to:

  •  Create a statewide communications network of OHV enthusiasts, clubs, and supporters.
  • Educate users about natural resource protection, weed control, and environmental awareness.
  • Ensure that all OHV enthusiasts are aware of their impact on and responsibility to the environment.
  • Educate users about ethics, trail etiquette, safety, and the importance of quiet OHV’s riding in a responsible manner.
  •  Provide educational opportunities and reference materials in volunteer development, organizing and club management, community action, resource development and other materials needed to accomplish these goals.
  •  Promote a positive public image of OHV recreation with land managers, landowners, government officials and the general public.
  •  Foster a collaborative environment to resolve OHV issues.
  •  Develop relationships with ‘decision makers’ to help them recognize that OHV use can be effectively managed.
  •  Foster new OHV groups and strengthen existing groups through improved organizational skills and increased membership.
  •  Promote the collective interests of OHV enthusiasts in Montana.
  •  Use the slogan ‘Creating a positive future for off-highway vehicle recreation.’

The organization of the association includes a board of directors consisting of one member from local clubs. Board meetings are held quarterly.

One of the manners in which the MTVRA works to achieve its goals includes lobbying the Montana State Legislature. “The Montana Legislature meets every other year,” explained Ehnes. “In order to influence them we have hired a lobbyist. Actually, we first got a lobbyist when we were established. At the time the state was developing an off-highway vehicle program. We hired our first lobbyist to help the state government create that program. However, they beat us to the punch and created their own program. In the next session of the legislature we stepped in and fixed it.”

That off-highway vehicle program needed fixing because the law did not allocate money for trail maintenance, construction, and re-construction, explained Ehnes. Instead, all the money went to the counties without any directions on how to proportion it. “Basically, it was just a tax on motorcycles and ATVs,” said Ehnes. “So we went back to the Legislature and revised the law so that a portion of the money went to the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and of that money a portion of it was used to administer law enforcement and to fund trail maintenance.”
Still, even with a re-worked law, there wasn’t enough money. So, the law was “fixed” again to include a gas tax refund on off-highway vehicle gas consumption. “That is where the bulk of our state off-highway vehicle program money comes from,” said Ehnes.

So, early on the MTVRA became aware of the power it had and could apply and still does today.

As far as impacting on regulations on the city, town and county level, the association relies on the local clubs, said Ehnes. A good example of how the local clubs and the MTVRA have been able to influence local decisions can be seen in their dealings with city commissions.

“We have had issues in which city and county commissions are involved in planning or are consulted with by other agencies,” explained Ehnes. “For example, the Forest Service is required to consult with local, county and city commissions and planning groups as part of the way they execute their business. So, whenever the Forest Service is involved in a meeting, we have participated with presentations giving our side of the issue and showing the benefits of off-highway vehicle recreation, responsible recreation and good management. Since it is the Forest Service that is involved in most of the issues we are concerned about, we can influence the decisions made concerning the Forest Service by our participation.”

The MTVRA is also not afraid to play a little political hardball. Although the organization is a non-profit and cannot directly get involved in politics, it does encourage the members of the local clubs to do so. Two years ago the local clubs were actively involved in replacing the mayor of Great Falls, Montana with a new mayor who is more aligned with the philosophies of the MTVRA and off-highway vehicle enthusiasts. The association also endorses and supports a number of candidates for the state legislature through the members of the local clubs. “The state association doesn’t endorse or oppose candidates because we are a non-profit,” explained Ehnes. “However, we get the local clubs to do it; and we use our quarterly newsletter to show where candidates stand on the issues that are important to us. On the local level, we encourage our clubs to be active in city, county, and state elections and to endorse candidates.”

Educating and Motivating Club Members and the Public
Most members of the MTVRA are also members of local clubs. However, there is an option for individuals to join just the state association. All members receive the group’s quarterly newsletter which is the primary educational tool of the MTVRA.

The association also organizes a state ride every year. “We use the rides to inform our members,” said Ehnes. “Informative speakers are given an opportunity to make presentations, and we do sound testing. We also work closely with the NOHVCC to do land management workshops. We have done four in Montana so far.”

The MTVRA’s educational and motivational efforts don’t stop with government activities. The group also understands how important it is to keep the public well informed. As a result, it is very active in an off-highway vehicle educational program called the “On the Right Trail Program.”

“The On the Right Trail Program started off as a series of educational posters that were developed to educate students about the trails,” said Ehnes. “The program also includes a seven-minute video that we show at our On the Right Trail show booth that appears at fairs and outdoor shows. The video is a tread lightly message. In fact, the Tread Lightly organization has adopted it as their video for their educational program.

“We also have a gentleman who takes our ‘On the Right Trail Youth Curriculum’ to the public schools,” added Ehnes. “He serves as a consultant and works with the local school districts to set up sessions with the science classes to teach the “On the Right Trail” program to kids. We also use a lot of the NOHVCC adventure trail materials in that program.”

The MTVRA has also been involved in lawsuits to support their cause. For example, it was recently a party in a lawsuit in which an individual purchased land next to a Bureau of Land Management riding area that has been in existence for more than 30 years. The new owner then built a home on the property and then later complained about the noise and dust coming from the BLM land and sued the Bureau of Land Management to close the area. The MTVRA got involved in the suit which was ultimately won by the BLM and MTVRA, and the person who instigated the lawsuit sold the property and moved.

Most Urgent Issues
According to Ehnes, the most urgent issue for the off-highway vehicle riding community is proposed closures of trails by the Forest Service. “Driven by the new Travel Management Rule, virtually every forest in our state is going through travel management plans that are anywhere from extremely restrictive to only kind of restrictive. The bottom line, though, is that there is nothing that offers the kind of access we have enjoyed in the past,” he said. “Virtually every forest statewide is experiencing this. It is urgent.

“We’re getting our local clubs involved and the NOHVCC did a series of workshops last year about the Travel Management Rule that the Motorcycle Industry Council and SVIA financed. The MTVRA hosted two of those workshops--one in Billings and one in Missoula. We are trying to get people to understand what the new rules are and that they can keep the trails open if they make the effort to participate,” said Ehnes.

Ehnes noted that the Montana State Legislature is not the part of the state government that is widely involved in this issue. Instead, efforts by the MTVRA and supporting individuals and groups are targeting the Forest Service directly.

According to Ehnes, the best way to influence decisions concerning the Forest Service on this issue is to attend Forest Service meetings that are involved in making decisions. “The best way to have an impact is to get your name on the mailing list for a document called The Schedule of Proposed Actions (SOPA). E-mail or call the local Forest Service office to get on the list and every quarter you will get via e-mail or regular mail a list of every action the Forest Service proposes and when a public meeting on that issue will be held. Then you need to go to those meetings and make yourself heard.”

Involved in National Issues
The association also gets involved in national issues through such organizations as the BlueRibbon Coalition, the American Motorcyclists Association and the All-Terrain Vehicle Association. It will also jump on issues that may be brewing in Montana but becomes a national issue as things play out. For example, the Three-State OHV EIS, which was a Montana issue and was the predecessor to the National Travel Management Rule, was almost unknown by other state associations. “Not many other state associations were involved or aware of it, but the Montana association knew about it and helped spread the word through the BlueRibbon Coalition, the AMA and the NOHVCC,” said Ehnes.

Association Website
The organization has a website that it uses to educate. The site address is: www.mtvra.com.

The site includes the bylaws of the association; a Recreation Statistics Update of a Trends and Demographics of Off Road Vehicle Use in Montana done in October, 2004; a calendar of events, a link to sponsors of the group; a membership application; and news and articles of importance to the off-highway vehicle community. There is also a section that provides links to related groups like the American Motorcyclist Association, the American Land Rights Association, BlueRibbon Coalition, Bureau of Land Management, Council on Environmental Quality, Environmental Conservation Organization, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Montana Motor Sports, NOHVCC, the Nevada United Four Wheelers, Snowmobile Alliance of Western States, the U.S. Forest Service Region 1, and Vote Smart.
Finally, in an effort to keep everyone’s eyes on the prize, there is a Checklist of Issues That Affect Motorized Recreation. This 101-page document was first created in 2005, but no doubt added to when appropriate, gives detailed information on the issues for which the association is fighting. The document can be downloaded directly from the association’s website.

Membership
According to Ehnes, there are 2,000 members statewide. Anyone can become a member but primarily the people the association represents are motorcycle and ATV owners and riders. Benefits of being a paid member include the ability to participate in the state rides that are held annually, a quarterly newsletter (that is actually published three times a year or so), representation with the Montana Legislature through the MTVRA legislative committee and the association’s paid lobbyist and advice on local planning issues.

“We’ve worked 15 years to get motorcycle and ATV folks to understand that we are all in this together.” concluded Ehnes.


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