Bill Hearne is no fatalist. Off-road riders in his area deserve fair access to public lands, and he’ll battle anyone who thinks otherwise. But most dealers are fatalistic, and he wants to change that.
The owner of Outdoor MotorSports, a Top 100 dealership in Spearfish, S.D., envisions a two-pronged attack in which a stronger AMA continues to deal with national issues while supporting — and being supported by — a growing number of local clubs whose members maintain trails, comment at public meetings, even hire lawyers.
But here’s the catch: Despite their general apathy, dealers are the best people to organize and lead such a force of riding clubs. “No. 1, we’ve got an effective communication system,” Hearne says. “We’ve got customer databases and e-mails, so we can act as a conduit of information. If there’s a public hearing and a club needs 30 people, a dealer can send out a mass e-mail and fill the room.”
Regular riders or clubs aspiring to lead don’t have such infrastructure to support a consistent effort for trail development. “Dealers need to be strong corporate citizens for their user groups,” Hearne says. “It’s kind of chintzy if they just let their customers go deal with the issues. Dealers need to provide the leadership for success.”
Off-roaders haven’t realized their full political power, Hearne says, because of the lack of organization. Meaning dealers are partly to blame.
But our purpose here is not to shame, but to inspire. Let’s begin with how Hearne has coped with local land-use issues, and how he plans to fuse fun, education and advocacy in a dirtbike ride inspired by a Colorado group. Then we’ll further explore his nationwide goal.
The Local Front
Hearne admits he’s motivated by money as well as justice. When rider access to local public lands drops, he sees a proportionate drop in off-road sales.
Hearne works with all of his area’s riding clubs. Putting them in contention with the two main federal land agencies are the Black Hills National Forest and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland regulated by the Bureau of Land Management. Readers may remember that the Travel Management Rule of 2005 dictated that the Forest Service map out where, when and how motorized use can take place. The forests are doing so in public processes the deadlines of which have already passed (the BLM has a similar process with a much looser time table). Hearne and his comrades participated in the Black Hills process, and the resultant final rule was, in Hearne’s words, “not a disaster. It was OK.”
He’d been worried. Some advocates in other parts of the country had told him how their forest managers hadn’t been as obliging. “While the Forest Service officials went through the process of taking public input,” Hearne says of these other forests, “they did not deal in good faith because when the plan came out, it didn’t bear any resemblance to what was talked about.”
And even the Black Hills plan has a major flaw: The forest is divided into four districts, and according to Hearne, the now-retired ranger for one district just didn’t like motorized travel and forbid it altogether. “It’s just not right that a single manager can terminate all travel in a massive area of the national forest,” Hearne says. Luckily, an appeal period lasts until November, when the rule goes into effect.
Hearne and other advocates face another challenge: ensuring riders know the new rules. One of the riding clubs applied for and won a $6,000 Polaris TRAILS grant to create full-color maps, signs and other communication tools. The Forest Service itself, Hearne says, had no such plans (though it will post the Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) on its website, www.fs.fed.us). “We thought, ‘We’re going to have massive abuse if people don’t know where to go, so let’s create mechanisms so people can get educated.” Hearne’s dealership already displays a large map showing the local riding areas. The store is even willing to makes copies of portions of it for customers.
The only other OEM that visibly supports land-use issues is Yamaha. “It’s irresponsible for the OEMs not to take a leadership role nationally in land use,” Hearne says, “and it has to be more than just a sticker that they put in a magazine that says ‘Tread Lightly.’”
The Yamaha GRANT program provided Outdoor MotorSports with more than $8,000 for a trailer equipped with tools needed for trail maintenance. “The local clubs and their members can check out the trailer and pull it to an area,” Hearne explains. “In the trailer are the appropriate tools to rehab a trail, create water bars, that kind of thing, to be a resource to the Forest Service.”
The agency itself has limited resources for trail upkeep. When neglected trails degrade beyond a certain point, the agency often closes them. Thus voluntary trail preservation is crucial.
With this in mind, Hearne in July paid to attend the inaugural Colorado 600 Trail Awareness Symposium (www.colorado600.org), a five-day ride through the state’s southwestern mountains. Each day the 44 riders discussed the issues and learned how to work closer with Forest Service and BLM land managers. The Trail Preservation Alliance (www.coloradotpa.org), a three-year-old nonprofit that assists off-road clubs with experts and lawyers, organized the event.
“Basically there’s a group of about 25 of these guys who are just hard-core about protecting and developing more trail systems,” Hearne says. “But they don’t do it in a rabble-rouser way. They don’t just get up and bitch and yell and scream. They’ve developed a skill set of how to work effectively with feds, state people and local people. And they’ve been extraordinarily successful in some areas. When we were down there riding, there were lots of trails that if they hadn’t interceded, they would not have been available.”
The Trail Preservation Alliance also assists clubs in Utah and New Mexico. It’s run by a trio of off-road veterans that includes Don Riggle, who says next year’s event will be similar in size. “We want to make it small and personal so people remember the event and learn something from it,” he says.
Besides a fun ride enhanced by education, the Colorado 600 is a shining example of how to work with the community. “The town mayor, the chief of police, and members of the town council and chamber of commerce all came over a couple of nights and had a beer with us,” Riggle says. “And they came to our banquet. They’re very happy that we have an organized event because what happens is a big group will just descend on a town, rip it up, and leave. We stayed there and worked with them.”
Says Hearne: “To even go on the ride you had to make a commitment that you would go back to your community and use those techniques to develop an enhanced trail system and riding opportunities in your area. The idea is to spread that knowledge around the country. And I think it’s going to work.”
Hearne is planning a May ride of his own for about 20 prime movers in the Black Hills. It will be modeled after the Colorado 600 and organized by the Trails Preservation Alliance. “In exchange for getting to go on a really cool ride,” he says, “they must agree to go spend some time in the trenches.”
Talk about mobilizing the troops. But there’s more: Nobody, not even preservation fanatics, angers land-use advocates as much as off-roaders who disregard the rules, destroying private lands and even the trails their fellow riders have worked so hard to maintain. The bad publicity often gives the whole motorized community a black eye.
Hearne has a counterattack. For example, four-wheel-drive pickups recently tore up an area with rare ferns and flowers called, of all things, Botany Canyon. “It was a mess,” Hearne says. “But some of the clubs got out there and helped reseed the area, change the drainage, and fill in the ditches and gullies.
“Anytime there’s a very visible violation that gets an article in the paper,” he explains, “I try to get one of the clubs to immediately call the Forest Service and say, ‘Hey, man, this is no darn good. We’re going to do something about it. Where do you want us to show up? We’re willing to fix it.’”
Often the Forest Service declines the help. “But just the fact that you offered it gets you a positive newspaper article,” Hearne claims. “They say, ‘OK here’s a user group that’s trying to do it right.’ But you’ve got to respond to each one of those things.”
Of course, it would be best if the lands were never harmed to begin with. Hearne has a plan for that, too.
Like all forests, the Black Hills National Forest is understaffed. Each of its vast districts has only two law enforcement officers. Hearne is hoping to implement a Ranger program in which the Forest Service trains about 300 volunteers not only in things like first aid and fire prevention, but also in how to report violations in ways that lead to prosecutions. These volunteers would serve incognito, only snapping photos and never confronting anyone.
“So we’d go from eight law enforcement people to 300,” Hearne says. “People who might tend to disregard the rules or be abusive to the land would be more hesitant because there’d be folks riding around all days of the week trained in how to turn them in.”
Selling the AMA
If dealer-led clubs are the ground forces, the fire from the sky is the AMA — the second prong in Hearne’s two-pronged plan.
Just two years ago Hearne wouldn’t have held the association in such high esteem. That was when it sold its professional racing assets to focus on legislative issues, including becoming a bigger, more forceful national voice for off-road travel.
Most people, Hearne says, are unaware of this ongoing change. “Because the AMA has a very big national presence in Washington, D.C., and is politically connected and has lobbyists there 24/7, I see it playing a hugely expanded role and making a very big contribution in this area,” he says.
Recent statistics back him up: In 2009, the AMA hired two more Washington, D.C., staff members and created a $1 million endowment the interest of which will benefit government relations programs. That year, people sent 120,000 e-mails, postcards and letters to lawmakers and regulators via AMA-supplied tools.
In addition to what the AMA does nationally, Hearne views it as a great data source for local clubs. It acts as a central repository. Take, for example, the Travel Management Rule process mentioned earlier for mapping out the Black Hills National Forest. During the first public hearing, Hearne realized that certain hard-to-obtain facts and figures regarding other national forests would help greatly during the next night’s hearing. The AMA supplied them in time. “That’s powerful,” he says.
Clubs can also benefit from the AMA’s political power. Hearne and his comrades once called on the association to help them influence a forest supervisor. “If we think the comment process is being abused and not followed, we can use a backdoor channel through the AMA,” he says. “They’ll go talk to three senators in an afternoon who are sitting on the committee that deals with land use, and that forest supervisor might get a call later in the day. I’m not saying you want to strong-arm the thing, but sometimes you have to. But I alone can’t get a committee senator to do something.”
So the AMA has power, but not nearly as much as it should. A potential for more exists, Hearne says, because only a small percentage of motorcyclists and ATV riders are AMA members. “I’ve talked to people who’ve been testifying in Washington, and I hate to say it, but it really comes down to numbers,” he says. “So we need to get that membership number up, because if you watch what happens, whether it be AARP or the NRA or any of those groups that have been very effective on the national scene of lobbying for specific user groups, it comes down to members and votes.
“I understand these government agencies have lots of users groups,” he continues, “and everybody thinks the woods belong totally to them. So you have to be a little open-minded. An advantage that we have in the motorized community is one, we’re large in size. And we spend money. If you look at tax dollars, the stuff we sell is kind of expensive.”
The spending done by individuals of other user groups — mountain bikers and hikers, for example — isn’t comparable, Hearne notes. “We’re buying $10,000 ATVs, and because our user groups tend to pull trailers and have big trucks and will go multiple days away to ride, they spend a lot of money. So our user group has some juice. There’s some economic value to what we do.”
Hearne says all dealers should be AMA members, as should all their customers. To this end, his F&I manager pitches the AMA while also providing applications for the appropriate local clubs. But Hearne complains that a speedy delivery process isn’t conducive to a proper presentation. So he wants to develop with the association a way for dealers to “prime the pump for AMA membership.”
One idea is a brief application in which customers simply consent to accept a phone call from the AMA. They also agree to let the dealer inform the AMA what they bought and to which user groups they belong. The dealer transmits this data electronically during the deal finalization process. Using a carefully crafted script, AMA staff or a third-party call center contacts each customer to explain the benefits specific to the vehicle bought. “People would get that response within 48 hours or less, while they’re still excited about their purchase,” Hearne says. “We just have to ask for the sale. If they say no, that’s OK. But right now we’re not asking at all, and as a consequence we’re not getting any gains.”
Since early 2009, AMA members who’ve opted for automatic renewal have received free roadside assistance for all their vehicles. “That’s a pretty dang powerful benefit,” Hearne notes. “You can’t get roadside assistance through somebody like AAA on a single vehicle for $39 a year [the cost of membership].”
Hearne also likes the idea of a mechanism allowing dealers to reward a $10 gift certificate to customers who join with auto renewal. “That might be enough to get someone over the hump to join,” he says. “Then that would drive traffic back to the dealership, so it would end up being a win-win for everybody.”
Where most dealers idly view land closures as just more evidence of an unfair world, Hearne is overflowing with ideas to stop closures. Stay positive, he advises dealers. “You don’t want to moan and groan to the public. You don’t want to say, ‘Oh, God, we’re losing our land use.’ That’s no good.”
Instead do something. “Dealers,” Hearne says, “have an obligation to be proactive and take a leadership role in the issues, whether it’s off-road usage, or motorcycle safety training, or denial of insurance to people who ride motorcycles. With all that kind of stuff, the dealers have to be on the front line.”
Sidebar: Organizing the sparsely populated
One irony found in advocating motorized access to public lands is that some of the most popular riding areas are scarcely populated, giving them scant political power. Off-road riders visiting these areas might cherish them, but once they leave, it’s the inhabitants who must battle to keep the trails open.
Bill Hearne, owner of Outdoor MotorSports in Spearfish, S.D., despairs that his state doesn’t have an effective off-highway association. He says dealers in eastern South Dakota are especially hesitant to participate, even though he’s tried to spur them. “It’s hard running a dealership, and I certainly understand that,” he says. “So when I tell them that I want them to spend maybe 20 days in a year’s time developing clubs and user groups, all of which will only have a long-term payoff, and a nebulous payoff at that, some of them say, ‘Man, I’ve just got to run my business. I can’t be going and taking a lead on this.’
“But I really feel that dealerships need to take the lead,” Hearne says. “As a dealer, you have so much to do, there is a limit on how much time you can spend on this kind of stuff, but if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it? Nobody, and then we all lose.”
Don Riggle, who helps run Colorado’s Trail Preservation Alliance (see main story), says his organization has had more success battling the same problem. “The TPA has helped form motorcycle clubs in some of the small communities in western Colorado,” he says. “Then if the motorcycle club in Gypson, Colo., for example, has an issue with the Forest Service, the TPA has several consultants who will work with it.”
The TPA is even willing to file lawsuits. “Going down the legal road is a last resort,” Riggle says, “and is also the least productive and also the most expensive. But we will go down that road if we have to.”
Sidebar: Many off-road groups, one message
In the main story, dealer Bill Hearne of Spearfish, S.D., makes a strong case for joining and promoting the American Motorcyclist Association. What does he think of the other national, state and local off-road organizations, many of which are listed on page 40? He says they’re all important, but warns that they need to work together. “If they’re not careful,” he says, “they end up fighting each other in a public forum.”
Hearne relates what happened during some of the public meetings hosted by the Forest Service to map out riding areas in the Black Hills National Forest. A motorcyclist advocating single-track use criticized ATV users. An ATV user then spoke out against single-track users. A Jeep driver told yet another story.
“When that goes on,” Hearne says, “you can watch the faces of those officials who are hearing this testimony, and they seem to be thinking, ‘Jeez, even in the motorized community there’s no agreement. These guys are fighting among themselves, so how am I supposed to figure out what to do?’ So what happens, I think, is that they take the path of least resistance and say, ‘We’ll just close it all down because we can’t find a consensus.’”
Hearne says this is why it’s important for off-road groups to work out any differences they have in private, before the hearings, so they can present a unified public face. “Because I’ve seen it happen locally where they’re giving a confused message and, as a consequence, hurting their case.”
Photo credits: Mike Huffman, Trails Conservation Alliance; Robb Watt, Trails Conservation Alliance; Joe Bonnello
This story originally appeared in the Dealernews October 2010 issue.