“We have, among us, a celebrity.” That was the line that I intended to use to introduce Clark Collins to the crowd assembled for dinner at Sharetrails/BlueRibbon Coalition’s 30th anniversary celebration a few years ago. I never got to use the line because Clark doesn’t get introduced — he makes an entrance and then it’s off to the races.
Thirty-two years ago, here in Pocatello, Idaho, a Union Journeyman Electrician who happened to enjoy riding dirt bikes in his leisure time started a movement that would ultimately halt the hegemony of the preservation/conservation movement over the destiny of public land in this country. Clark Collins (along with co-founder Darryl Harris) founded BlueRibbon Coalition in 1987 almost as a retort to an unfortunately aimed barb from former Idaho Gov. John Evans who’d told Clark that “Motorized recreationists are insignificant.”
Oh yeah? Well, get you some of this.
The 1987 founding of the BlueRibbon Coalition is an in media res entry in the story arc of Clark Collins and the public lands movement that he made into a force to be reckoned with. To fully understand Clark’s influence on our nation’s public lands one must go back decades earlier to the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Through a lens shaped by the mores of the times the Wilderness Act, along with the Endangered Species Act of 1966, were widely viewed as beneficial landmark bills to protect public lands against abuse from extractive industries and others (like off-highway vehicle users). Forged in the idealism of the times, these popular bills were viewed as part of a government-sponsored conservation lineage that began with President Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal and extended all the way to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
As with many ideals steeped in notions like “greater cause” and “legacy for future generations” these acts, though far from merit-less, failed to account for even the possibility of unintended consequences — something that would seem to have merited at least some thought given the magnitude of public lands involved.
As restrictions on travel in public lands were further tightened in the 1970s and ‘80s, even user groups such as bicyclists found themselves on the outs. Wilderness designations (and proposed wilderness designations) were being used to preserve large swaths of public land from large segments of the public. When this trend found its way to the Mink Creek area south of Pocatello, it also found Clark Collins.
It’s not uncommon for folks in the environmental and preservationist communities conduct themselves with a degree of self-righteousness. Nothing, after all, propels a higher cause along as effectively as an acolyte. When one of the emerging antagonists to the wilderness movement was a man from the trades, without any Ph.D. or other fancy credentials, the crowd of academics and liberal business people who largely constituted the preservationist movement made the mistake of taking Clark lightly.
That would not last for long.
Wilderness advocates had met their match in Clark. Despite being portrayed as a rustic in newspapers and periodicals (that tended to be friendly to environmentalists), Clark had the goods to do what needed to be done. No shrinking violet, he took the fight for OHV interests straight to elections for the U.S. Senate and then to the halls of Congress — and won.
Perhaps Clark’s greatest legacy is the 1991 National Trails Fund Act, now known as the Recreational Trails Program (RTP). This act, originally known as the Symms Act, was borne of a productive working relationship between Clark and United States Senator Steve Symms (R-Idaho, 1981-93). It was and is a landmark piece of legislation in support of not only OHV interests but those of all trail users.
The RTP is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide funds to states in order to create and maintain trails for all users. The RTP program benefits hikers, climbers, cyclists, equestrians, skiers, sledders, motorcyclists, users of ATVs and UTVs and everyone else who enjoys trails. RTP funding comes from the federal Highway Trust Fund. It works by recycling a portion of the federal motor fuel tax collected from non-highway recreational use back into recreational trails. Thirty percent of funds are dedicated for uses relating to motorized recreation; 30 percent are dedicated for uses relating to non-motorized recreation; and 40 percent is dedicated to projects that facilitate trail use, e.g. facilities, access, etc. For 2018, the federal government authorized a bit over $82 million for the RTP.
This figure is far short of the $270 million collected by the federal motor fuel excise tax last year, but is far better than what would now exist had Clark and Senator Symms not pushed the NTFA as an amendment to the 1991 highway bill.
In Idaho, where 85 percent of the sticker feels paid by OHV users got back into maintenance for multiple-use trails, RTP funds augment a vast network of motorized and non-motorized trails. In many other places, RTP funds are basically the only game in town for any trail-related funding. Without the RTP, many existing trails in these areas would simply disappear for lack of funding.
Over the years, RTP has put hundreds of millions of dollars into trails of all types (motorized and non-motorized), yet at the time the RTP was viewed as an anathema by environmentalists, eventually earning Clark a place on Outside Magazine’s list of “Earth Shakers: The Counter-Enviro Power List.”
Clark and the BlueRibbon Coalition, despite budgets that were less than a tenth the size of organizations that they typically battled, won a series of significant legal victories for OHV interests over the years. Always punching up, Clark, working with attorney Paul Turcke of Boise, Idaho, crafted an efficient strategy of picking legal battles that had a good chance of a favorable outcome, could be adequately funded and would set good legal precedents.
If you are a trail user of any stripe, motorized or non-motorized, you owe Clark Collins a debt of gratitude whether you know it or not. As budgets for the Forest Service and BLM continue to decline the RTP is virtually the only source of funding for development and maintenance of trails in many areas of the country.
Clark is currently experiencing some health-related challenges. While there is still time to do it, I want to personally thank him for all that he did for everyone who values trail-related recreation. Although I am speaking specifically for myself, I know that I am also speaking for many others who, like myself, looked up to Clark.
Here’s to you, Clark. And thank you for all that you did.
Associated Press and Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, consultant and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time happily raising three children, llama farming and riding mountain bikes and motorcycles.