When there's nowhere to ride, there's nothing to sell

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In the battle over land use and OHV access there’s a popular tweak of a famous political adage: All land use is politics and all politics is local.

The main fight over public lands might be taking place at the state and federal levels — with all the high-powered lobbyists and political maneuvering that accompany such things — but the impact of closed riding areas and the loss of trails can be felt in the back yards and cash registers of powersports dealers across the country. It hits hard those enthusiasts whose fight to keep local trails open is a matter of perseverance and time.

Scott Armstrong knows this impact well as both a die-hard off-road rider and the owner of Moto Connection, an independent shop in Saint Albans, Vt. With riding areas very limited in his corner of the Northeast, Armstrong has taken on a leadership role in three separate efforts to seek and develop riding spots in his community.

“For me it’s a no-brainer because I’m an off-road-only shop. It just makes sense,” Armstrong says. “I sit here in my showroom and guys come in here all day long saying they don’t have a place to ride. I figure I better go and do something about this or my customers aren’t going to have a place to go.”

Armstrong has worked with a group of local land owners who are also dirtbike guys to develop enduro-type trails on six different properties that they rotate through on weekly rides. They make it a point not to overuse any one site and work to keep noise levels in check. “It gives everybody a place to go and have some fun, and I get to hang out with my customers,” he says.

Another group oversees management of a chunk of land that had previously served as the type of place where people dispose of old cars and other junk, but it was also a long-treasured riding spot. Working with permission from the land owner, they established an off-road riding area complete with an entrance gate and liability waivers. Armstrong has even used the area to hold a shop demo day with representatives from Gas Gas and Beta. Another effort is directed at finding properties for a trials riding club.

Armstrong knew he needed to do something to help the riders in his area maintain a regular place to ride, but acknowledging that he didn’t have the interest or skill-set to fight or establish legislation, he opted to focus on something he could do. “Quite honestly, it’s a selfish thing too. I’ve been a dirtbike guy since I was 10 years old. I want to ride with or without my business, so it comes naturally to me and the guys I ride with. It’s an extra time commitment, but the rewards, I think, are worth it,” he says, adding, “I’ve got to keep people riding. Otherwise they’re going to get lazy and start playing video games. I’ve got to keep them out there riding.”

It’s no secret that there’s a host of threats to OHV access on public lands, as well as other land-use issues. Talk to any of the die-hard advocates working for such groups as the BlueRibbon Coalition or the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council and you’ll get an earful about what’s going on.

From President Obama’s proposed America’s Great Outdoors Initiative and the Treasured Landscape Initiative to the Forest Service’s ongoing forest planning rule and the constant PR attack on OHV recreation, there’s likely a land access issue that affects you.

So what’s the impact? Skyrocketing permitting fees for off-road events. Popular riding areas like the Clear Creek Management Area in Central California being closed. A new travel plan implemented by the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands that severely restricts off-road motorized recreation. All of which pose a threat to the financial health of local powersports dealers whose vehicle and PG&A sales could be affected.

While Scott Armstrong’s efforts are one example of what one dealer can do, the larger fight requires the collective effort of dealership principals, personnel and customers across the country, says land- use advocates and those close to the issue. While it’s troublesome to consider the loss of treasured recreation areas, there’s that cold, hard business angle as mentioned by Armstrong — if there’s nowhere to ride, there’s nothing to sell.

Dealers can help

The BlueRibbon Coalition is one of the advocacy groups at the forefront of the fight over recreational land-access issues. Greg Mumm is the executive director of what is often considered the “pit bull” branch of these organizations for its tenacious legal battles with an anti-access agenda. The BRC is just one voice in a chorus of small local groups and other organizations that are fighting the good fight, Mumm says.

“There’s so much going on that it’s difficult and challenging to stay on top of it all, but it needs to be stayed on top of. It isn’t something that’s ever going away,” he says, adding that it’s a struggle where the victories are long-fought, sometimes abstract and, for the most part, rarely permanent.

In citing the four or five top land- access issues that stand to have the biggest impact on the world of off-road recreation, Mumm says that the result is often felt more on the local level. It may be a proposal by President Obama or a large-scale public land issue or the ongoing implementation of the Forest Service’s Travel Management Rule adopted in 2005, but the impact usually hits the small venues that are most suitable and valuable for off-road recreation.

Mumm calls this the death-by-a- thousand-cuts model. In other words, divide and conquer. And, it’s not always public lands that are affected. There’s a strong push for an all-lands approach to land management, he says.

“One of the biggest challenges for off-roaders is they often have a higher profile, especially if they’re having events or races, because of the heightened media coverage,” he says. “One little mistake or incident at an event is magnified tenfold because of the heightened attention and the ongoing PR attack on OHV

recreation. For crying out loud, very, very few people end up injured or dying in powersports events compared to injuries in other activities, but we’re the ones who are held out and vilified for what we’re doing.

“These issues affect the off-road industry in so many ways.”

Given the significant impact on the powersports industry, Mumm suggests that there’s a lot dealers and manufacturers can do to become advocates for land-use and OHV-access issues, in addition to fostering the same concern in their customer base. Given the millions of people in the U.S. who enjoy OHV recreation, just harnessing a small percentage of that energy — both voting power and dollars — could go a long way toward creating awareness.

From creating incentives at the retail level to encouraging membership in the BlueRibbon Coalition and similar groups, to offering up space for local club meetings, dealers can take part, Mumm says. These connections can help build loyalty among these groups and create a sense of community among often disparate groups of advocates fighting the uphill battle against land closures. Businesses also can often have more influence on legislation — through connections to those in power and with professional trade groups — than individual enthusiasts.

“Oftentimes dealers, through their [state associations], have a better concept on how to approach legislative affairs than a local club or group,” he says. “They have those connections where they can help facilitate a greater involvement on issues than those small clubs. And the other big thing is they can simply help network folks together. … If nothing else, it creates a sense of excitement that you have a partner. That you’re not walking through the throng all by yourself.”

Mumm explains that organizing a wide collection of individuals into a united front is an important part of fighting against land closures and for recreational access. Dealers and dealerships offer an excellent focal point around which a common goal can be wrapped. “The bottom line is you don’t need a club or an organization to go wheeling or riding with your buds, but you do need that club or organization to make sure you and your buds can go wheeling or riding,” he says.

Money talks

As founder and CEO of Cycle Gear, the 90-plus-location chain of powersports PG&A stores, Dave Bertram is a dedicated off-road rider and a huge supporter of the groups working to keep riding areas open. In fact, the four-time ISDE gold medal winner regularly donates $10,000 a year to the BlueRibbon Coalition as part of a matching donation program.

Additionally, each of the individual managers at the Cycle Gear locations has a club donation budget he or she can use to support small local clubs and individuals, the people who are often out cutting trails and working with local rangers. And starting next spring, Bertram says he’s planning to launch a gift card program to help raise more money for the recreation access organizations.

“When you’re passionate about off-road riding, you hate to see those areas disappear. I think my interest in supporting these active groups is to keep these areas open,” Bertram says. “It comes from my history as a rider and as a businessman who makes a living off of our industry.

“This is an important issue for us. We’re going to eventually lose all of our riding areas if we don’t continue to fight. The people who have the talent and the intellect and who have dedicated their lives to fighting for us, we have to get behind them.”

Bertram says he realizes that with the current state of the economy and the powersports business, many small businesses are cutting back on their expenses — and his business is no exception. But the same economic problems hitting dealerships are also affecting the land-use rights groups and access organizations, many of which rely on donations and support from individuals and businesses. As such, he’s tried to not cut back on his support for the groups.

“We’ve tried to cut in other areas, but ultimately if you cut donations to groups like ORBA, BlueRibbon, AMA and CORVA, those groups, if they don’t get the funding, they can’t be out there fighting for us,” he says. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we cut back on our funding to these guys who are out there fighting for us and then there’s land closures, the next time somebody wants to choose between a dirtbike and some other sport that’s more convenient, which way is the pendulum going to swing?”

Bertram suggests that if dealers could convince their customers to donate a few dollars here and there, perhaps at the point of purchase during a sale, in addition to kicking in with support, there could be a huge war chest to go after land-use issues. “We really need to rally together as a group of individuals who are passionate about a sport and put our money where our mouths are,” he says.

And given the long-term nature of the fight over keeping lands open and the well-financed and entrenched nature of the opposition wishing to do away with OHV recreation, it’s ultimately money and collective support that will keep groups like BlueRibbon pushing forward.

The way BlueRibbon’s Mumm sees it, the fight is a long one and looks to be won one small success at a time.

“Nobody thinks that one day you’re going to wake up and win the fight and go happily into the future. What you have instead is a longer-term perspective where you slowly turn the tide to a positive measurement and positive direction for the benefit of OHV recreation as a whole,” he says. “That long-term perspective always has to be taken. … It’s the tugboat that turns the battleship.

“If you didn’t approach it from that long-term perspective, you’d get discouraged and walk away after a very short time because it’s not instant success. It isn’t that way at all when it comes to this. Many of these fights we’re fighting are fights that have been fought for 100 years.”

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews October 2010 issue.