By the early 1990s, off-road vehicle recreation was generating $3 billion a year in economic activity in California alone.
Don Amador, Western states representative for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which lobbies for motorized access to public lands, described it as the leisure activity of choice for a growing segment of middle-aged, middle-class America.
"A lot of the baby boomers who enjoyed off-road recreation in the late '60s and '70s had to stop when they raised their kids," he said. "Now their kids are in college. I've seen a lot of reentry into the sport."
In today's stress-filled world, Amador said, motorized recreation is a great way to let off steam. "It hits the spot."
As for the sport's troublemakers, he said, "Blue Ribbon has taken a strong stance. We urge our members to protect the rights of others."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Off-roaders -- An article in Section A on Sept. 21 incorrectly stated that the U.S. Forest Service estimated that 36 million people annually use off-road vehicles in national forests. A spokesman said that 10.7 million annual visits to national forests are by people in off-road vehicles.
Bill Dart, Idaho-based director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, said much of the conflict stems from resentment over areas that have been closed to the sport.
The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 set aside millions of acres in the Mojave Desert as wilderness, off-limits to vehicles. Where off-roaders once had 13.5 million acres to play in the desert, they now have closer to 7 million acres.
For some riders, "No Trespassing" signs are becoming more a provocation than an edict.
"I have noticed in the last two years people I know who have always been responsible land users -- not kids, but 55- to 60-year-old people -- are saying, 'To hell with it. I'm going anyway. If I get caught, I get caught,' " said Ron Schiller, chairman of the High Desert Multiple Use Coalition, a group of off-roaders and equestrians in Ridgecrest. "It's the wrong thing to do, but I understand how they feel. They are fed up."
Local rider Jim Willis is fed up too. Willis said he grew up riding dirt bikes in the hills around Oakland. "The next thing you know, the environmental movement came along and we could no longer ride in the hills," he said.
Willis, 55, moved his family to this area in 1975, he said, to ride the forest trails. Now he confronts the same kind of complaints that caused him to leave Oakland.
"If they are so against hearing a dirt bike," he said, "they shouldn't have moved to a place where dirt bikes are so predominant."
Willis admits targeting the activist group organized by the Spencers. He tacked up a mock "Not Wanted" poster around town with Spencer's photograph, the text describing her and her cohorts as "nature Nazis."
"It's not a threat; it's how we feel," he said.
Recently, off-roaders have been emboldened by policies of the Bush administration that have favored the expansion of motorized recreation on federal lands, including places where snowmobile and ATV use had been restricted -- including Yellowstone National Park and much of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area west of Blythe.
But the machines do not tread lightly on often-fragile Western lands. In the million-acre Stanislaus National Forest, ATVs have damaged streams, eroded legal trails and overlaid the landscape with a network of illegal trails now indelibly carved into the forest.
In April, U.S. Forest Service Director Dale Bosworth cited "unmanaged recreation" as one of the four most important issues facing American forests. Among the problems posed by off-road vehicles, Bosworth said, are "erosion, water degradation and habitat destruction. We're seeing more and more conflicts between users. We're seeing more damage to cultural sites and more violation of sites sacred to American Indians."
In Arizona, managers of the state's five national forests have agreed to ban cross-country trailblazing by off-road vehicles, saying the damage inflicted on the land and wildlife is too great.
In Colorado's Boulder County, Mark Boslough has been trying to keep off-roaders from trespassing on his family's 300 acres for years.
The dispute has turned into a series of running battles. Boslough places boulders in the middle of his road; four-wheel-drive clubs hold outings to winch them out. Boslough plants hundreds of seedlings to restore a riverbed damaged by four-wheelers; off-roaders pull them up.
Boslough, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, says he has been threatened with violence on off-road Web sites, including lynching.
Dana Bell of Long Beach, Western representative on the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, a group of off-road enthusiasts, says the sport's growth has outstripped officials' ability to manage motorized recreation.
"We haven't had the degree of management, education and enforcement necessary to prevent conflict between the different recreation groups and adjacent landowners," Bell said "There are so few enforcement officers out there that their presence is totally missing."
Amador agreed. "We're willing to educate our members to respect the land, but we need leadership from Washington."