Ranchers, environmentalist unite on off road vehicle bill

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

It’s not often that environmentalists find common ground with farmers and ranchers in the Legislature or elsewhere. But one bill, which will be heard for the first time later this week in a Senate committee, has won the support of both groups.

The bill is Senate Bill 379, sponsored by Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose. Dealing with the regulation of off-highway vehicles, the bill would raise registration fees, and increase penalties for violating the state’s off-highway law — a $200 fine for the first offense, $500 for the second and $800 for a third or subsequent violation.

Both ranchers and environmentalists agree that something should be done to crack down on the drivers of such vehicles who abuse public and private property. It’s scheduled to be heard Wednesday in the Senate Corporations & Transportation Committee.

“There’s no enforcement,” said Antonio Gonzales, who lives on a 260-acre ranch in Glorieta that abuts National Forest Land. Gonzales, who was at the Capitol Monday with his wife Eleanor to talk to lawmakers about the bill, told a reporter that off-highway vehicle drivers have trespassed on their property, cut fences shot guns, scared livestock and even killed more than 10 of their dogs in the past several years.

Environmentalists also actively support the bill. “Off-highway vehicles can do quite a bit of damage to natural resources in national parkas as well as private property,” said Leanne Leith, political director of Conservation Voters New Mexico on Monday.

Both factions agree that there has been little or no enforcement of laws pertaining to off-highway vehicles in recent years.

But not everyone is on board with SB379. The New Mexico Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance has called on its membership to lobby legislators against the bill.

“There are so many things wrong with this Bill that we believe it should be killed outright rather than try to change it. … get your riding buddies, friends, family, neighbors, co-workers — anyone who is tired of OHV’ers being treated so unfairly and so badly and have them call a committee member also. Let’s kill SB379 right here and now,” reads a posting on the group’s Web site.

The word also has gotten out to national organizations for enthusiasts, such as the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which also urges readers to tell their “friends and riding buddies” to get involved.

Griego said in an interview last week that he and other senators have received e-mails from all over the country from people responding to such alerts.

The bill would increase the two-year registration fee from $30 to $45. The state would be able to set decibels levels for the vehicles. Enforcement would be put under the Game and Fish Department.

The debate over off-road vehicles has been going on for years in the Roundhouse. Last year the Legislature passed a joint memorial calling on the departments of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources and Game and Fish to study and report on the problem. The agencies produced a 194-page report that made several recommendations that became part of the law.

Griego said he, along with Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque and Rep. Jeanette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, have conducted a series of public hearings in recent months.

“It’s bad when you live on 160 acres and you’re afraid to let your grandchildren play outside,” Antonio Gonzales said. He said he’s confronted some of the intruders. “Some are okay but some get belligerent,” he said.

Opponents of the bill say that most off-highway vehicle owners are responsible and law abiding and that the kind of abuses Gonzales talks about are the deeds of “bad apples.”

Supporters say law-abiding drivers have nothing to fear from the bill.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com

Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com