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Measure Nature’s Ruin In Terms Of Cc’s, Rpm And Decibels

SUNDAY, OCT. 5, 1997

Flash back to a time when I am a child, hiking in the Cascades.

Tagging along with father and Dave Kellogg, a cattle rancher from near Naches, I am going to get to catch fish in Manashtash Lake! Deep pine duff pads our footsteps on the trail. We step over coral mushrooms and hear blue grouse drum.

Suddenly, a motorcyclist blasts past us fast, without a nod, and the blue of his exhaust smoke lingers long.

Dave spies the bike at the lake. It’s a Triumph, parked beneath a spruce. Spontaneously, he hurls a fist-sized rock against the cylinder head, missing the spark plug but denting a cooling fin.

Edward Abbey, the late author of “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” could have shown Dave more quiet and effective ways of disabling that machine.

It’s not surprising that machines are stretching people everywhere to their wits’ end. The phrase “road rage” has entered our lexicon in the last year.

But is it really roads that evoke rage? Maybe our ever-more-powerful machines unleash the moods and power trips that society keeps in check.

Now flash back three years ago, to the North Fork of the Payette River where it enters Payette Lake. Karen and I rent a kayak and begin paddling up the gentle stream between beaver lodges and Canadian geese.

A jet skier overtakes and passes us, grinning, then paces us. His smoke hangs on the water. His motor’s two-cycle whine exhausts us, finally, and we turn around.

In a column last month, Outdoors Editor Rich Landers described how “an ear-numbing swarm of jet jockeys” has come to rule the roost at Priest Lake.

At Lake Coeur d’Alene this year, a jockey died. San Juan Island commissioners are fighting the dominance of jet skis on Puget Sound and the National Park Service proposes allowing these craft on Crescent Lake.

If the mayhem seems worse in Idaho - that last bastion of irrational autonomy and disdain for regulatory control - it’s because political and economic forces collude in the Gem State to keep motorized recreation virtually exempt from law.

Understand that I love Idaho and lived happily in South and North Idaho for many years. But Idahoans need to catch a clue.

Boorish county commissioners are part of the puzzle. Bonner County forbids sheriffs to enforce no-wake zones, perform boat safety checks, even conduct searches and rescues on Priest Lake. Such public services give the appearance of infringing on someone’s imagined constitutional right to rip the spit out of the public lands.

How did recreation come to be defined as motorized recreation? What do we give up when we decide our feet will no longer touch the earth? What about the rights of wild critters to live without noise pollution, erosion, air pollution and plain old intrusion into historically untrammeled habitat?

Our dwindling natural resources are more and more becoming cultural resources. Savagely divisive culture wars will be the inevitable upshot.

The Duluth News-Tribune reports that U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth supports a bill to reopen portages to motorized vehicles in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). An outspoken foe of environmentalists and the environment, Chenoweth is the subject of the popular Idaho bumper sticker that asks voters to “CAN HELEN NOT SALMON” - an opinion spawned by her remark that salmon must not be endangered if you can still buy them in cans on grocers’ shelves.

Chenoweth has adopted the BWCAW issue as “another example of local people’s concerns being trounced by outsider preservationists and federal bureaucracy.”

Forest Service officials testified against the changes. Local wilderness supporters are preparing to fight the bill on the House floor, where it may appear as an amendment to larger legislation.

By allying federal bureaucrats and “preservationists,” Chenoweth is speaking in code. Just as criminals talk in argot, the so-called “wise use” brigades led by Chenoweth have their own imagery and verbal flags. She wields them deftly, as do her constituents.

One bit of encoded humor that circulates among Louisiana-Pacific employees shows a picture of our globe behind the slogan, “Earth First, We’ll Log the Other Planets Later.”

Among the most potent wise-use groups, the Blue Ribbon Coalition was begun by Pocatello dirt biker Clark Collins on a proverbial shoestring. The group’s prime agenda always has been to promote off-road vehicle use. Blue Ribbon supports opening wilderness areas - those protected by the 1964 Wilderness Act - to motorcycles, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and four-wheel drives. The group now is endowed by the makers of off-road machines, most of which are manufactured in Japan.

Such groups in turn endow political candidates who will do their bidding in the marketplace called Congress.

The tyranny of motorized recreation is not reducible to simple formulas about freedom and independence, outsider preservationists and insider bureaucrats. It entails campaign finances, multinational industries and a machine culture that increasingly defines our experiences in nature.


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