Dealers Fighting A Good Fight For Off-Road Access

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land use off-road vehicles off-road access forest access wildlands access ATV UTV SSV side-by-side vehicles quadrunner trail maintenance

BY NOW YOU MAY BE THINKING, "Just tell me what I should be doing." Much of this question is answered in the "Dealer Resources" listing in this issue. But to see how these resources are deployed in the field, we contacted two dealers who are superstars in the land-use arena. They also have ideas about what the industry needs to do to move forward. One dealer is in the West, the other in East. The regions differ in that the majority of federal lands are in the West, but overall, the two dealers expressed similar concerns.

PENNSYLVANIA: KEYSTONE STATE FOR LAND USE

Dick Lepley is owner of Street Track 'N Trail, a 40-year-old multiline dealership in Conneaut Lake, Pa. He is also closely aligned with the Pennsylvania Off-Highway Vehicle Association (www.paohv.org), is the state partner for NOHVCC, and is a board member of the BlueRibbon Coalition.

As in many states, a big issue in Pennsylvania is land owner liability. Basically, many private land owners wouldn't mind OHV use on their land if it weren't for their fear of being sued. If the state were to pass legislation that limits their liability, they would be encouraged to open up their land. Pennsylvania limits liability for recreational purposes, but its legislation doesn't specify ATV and dirtbike use. "We're trying to get that changed," Lepley says, "and we're also trying to get an amendment added that gives a land owner the right to go back and collect for damages if he's found not guilty."

Public land is also a hot issue. Most of Lepley's attention, however, is not on federal land. Sure, he's hoping to increase the 108 miles of OHV trails in the Allegheny National Forest, but he claims the golden opportunity lies in state lands. Pennsylvania has a lot of forest and public country crisscrossed with unrecognized trails. "If we had a means of legalizing them and linking them together," he says, "it would be extraordinary."

So how is Lepley working toward his goals? One way is through what he and the PaOHV call Off-Road Leadership Summits. A couple of years ago Lepley had a meeting with a legislator who was also a customer. Lepley says he could sense that the legislator was fielding a lot of questions from constituents regarding illegal ATV use that she couldn't answer. He remembers: "After we chatted for a while, she said, 'You know, it's readily apparent to me that I don't know much about off-road issues and did not know their complexity. My guess is that other legislators are in the same boat.'"

And so the Off-Road Leadership Summits were started. The PaOHV invites not only legislators, but also trail planners, tourist association reps, business owners and county commissioners, who are especially important because they have strong connections with the land agencies and their constituency. Leaders from national organizations like NOHVCC, the AMA and the BRC (see "Dealer Resources") often assist at the summits.

"We show these folks what potential off-road has and show them how many tools are available to build and maintain trails. It's a real eye-opener for them," Lepley says. "We need to form coalitions with folks who are not necessarily even interested in motorized use but would be willing to work with us."

He cites as an example the Allegheny Forest Alliance, a consortium of hardwood producers. One of the producers owns well over 100,000 acres and, according to Lepley, has always wanted to work with the public. "If we can get around the aforementioned liability issues, there's a tremendous opportunity to create trail systems," he says.

Courting the existing user base, of course, is also a priority. Lepley believes dealers and customers need to become better organized. "We're such a widely diverse group of people, and we seem to have a heck of a time getting along with one another. That's another issue we have to start figuring out," he notes.

Most dealers aren't really involved, a fact not lost on the PaOHV. "What we're trying to do is expose them to the tools that are out there and get them more closely aligned so dealer A is not out pursuing one fight while dealer B is out pursuing another," says Lepley, who recommends many of the resources we list. "Dealers will be absolutely astounded at how much information, how much assistance is out there," he says. "When you start looking at this on a national scope, you realize that there are people who have done an extraordinary job of making things happen in their respective states and also at the federal level. And all those tools are out there to be used by other folks who are trying to fight the same fight."

As far as in-store advocacy goes, Lepley believes the manufacturers must get more proactive in educating their dealers. Furthermore, he thinks the OEMs should create what the PaOHV is attempting to create at the state level: a vehicle delivery process that includes a formal presentation to the customer about land-use issues. "We'd really like to see customers made aware of what's going on right up front," he says.

The PaOHV is also working to create a program in which dealers can pass on, at the point of delivery, an association membership to a customer for just $5. "We're hoping that might be a major impetus to get people to join the association so we can expand our database and then begin to communicate with these folks," Lepley says.

A lot of dealers, he says, may have land-use information on display, but this passive approach accomplishes only so much. "It's the kind of program that almost has to be forced on people," he claims. "I don't think most consumers come in with the intent of saying, 'Hey, I want to be an activist.'"

And then dealers must educate their staff. Even Lepley admits he hasn't done this well enough. "In defense of dealers," he says, "I don't think they have ever been under more pressure than they are now. In most dealerships, the dealer principle is wearing multiple hats."

That's why, Lepley reiterates, the education of customers must be a formalized process easily taught to staff and easily passed on. "And I think the manufacturers can play a major role in that," he says. (If you'd like to learn more about what Lepley has done, or would like his advice, he says feel free to call him at 814-382-4821, ext. 125.)

DIFFERENT REGION, SAME FIGHT

Jim Woods, owner of California's Simi Valley Honda, is the newly elected president of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association (www.corva.org). As mentioned earlier, most Forest Service land is in the West, so CORVA commissions an instructor to teach people how to properly comment on route designation. In the El Dorado Forest in Northern California, for example, Woods says hundreds of miles of routes were gained due to public involvement. CORVA is also developing an e-mail alert system similar to the BlueRibbon Coalition's.

Woods agrees with Lepley that the OEMs need to get more involved in developing materials to hand out in a standardized process. Until then, his store is dispersing what's available. Materials are not only given to vehicle customers, but also to buyers of parts and accessories. Woods buys maps of off-road areas from the California Trail Users Coalition and hands them out for free. "If customers wish to give us a donation, we put that money into a jar on the table," he says. Donations go to N2Dirt (www.n2dirt.org), CORVA's educational arm. Among future materials N2Dirt plans to produce is a bilingual handout for Spanish-speaking off-roaders.

Simi Valley Honda tries to give to every customer a copy of the CORVA Off-Roader in Action Newsletter. "It's hopefully going to get them excited and make them understand there are issues we can solve," Woods says. His store also passes out Honda's safety materials and Tread Lightly! coloring books for the kids.

Although Woods doesn't sell UTVs himself (he declined Honda's request to add square feet to get Big Red), he says buyers of these vehicles need to be educated the most because they're often new to off-roading. "They have no clue of the rules," he claims. Lepley also cites the general influx of new riders over the years and the "cowboy mentality" the desert inspires in people, described by him as: "Hey, we're here; we can do whatever we want to do, partner."

Woods guesses that fewer than a quarter of dealers make a similar attempt to educate customers. "For the public to be involved, we as dealers have to be involved enough to tell the public what to do."

Woods thinks unknowing customers are ripe for disappointment. "Learning by enforcement gives people a bad taste in their mouth," he says. In this way, land-use education parallels safety education —just replace citations with injuries. There's also a direct connection in that proper gear and riding habits reduce how often off-roaders come in contact with search-and-rescue teams. Which is good for the riders, of course, but also the industry's image.

Some dealers hesitate to provide land-use education because they're afraid it will endanger the sale. The safety parallel continues: Telling customers about the potential of lost land access is like talking about the chances of suffering a fatal head injury. Greg Mumm of the BRC understands this dilemma, but says dealers must choose advocacy. "Information given at the point of sale is essential to the growth of the grassroots effort," he tells Dealernews. "We can all work together to find better ways to market the involvement of the grassroots constituency for the point of sale without hurting the potential of the sale. If anything, I believe we could enhance the potential for sales."

As restrictions and closures increase, off-roaders will be segregated into smaller and smaller areas. Woods reasons that this higher concentration will lead to more accidents. "Mommy and Daddy aren't going to feel it's safe to take the kids to the desert," he says. "It's going to relate into sales down the road, so we as dealers need to be responsible and not only educate, but be on top of this stuff and not be afraid to get our wallets out now and then to throw money into the hopper to counter these lawsuits and closures, because that's what keeps it all open—that attorney."

He adds: "It's a passion. It should be for all of us, whether we're off-roaders or just in the business."