BlueRibbon Coalition chief shares his thoughts

It’s been a banner year for personal watercraft access, with PWC allowed back onto many of the high-profile waterways they were previously banned from due to the much-publicized agreement between the National Park Service and the environmental watchdog group Bluewater Coalition. One organization that played a vital role in this success was the BlueRibbon Coalition, a membership organization that has championed the public’s right to responsibly enjoy public lands since the group’s creation in 1987.
Powersports Business recently had the opportunity to speak with Clark Collins, BlueRibbon’s first paid employee and current executive director, on the organization’s roots, his thoughts on the strength and influence of anti-recreation groups like Bluewater Network, and what personal watercraft dealers and enthusiasts can do to continue the latest string of success stories.

Powersports Business: How did the Blue Ribbon Coalition first come about?
Clark Collins:
I was involved in representing off-highway motorcycle riders in Idaho, had been quite active working on land use issues here in Idaho, and working with other recreational interest groups. I was contacted by the publisher of a regional snowmobile magazine about his idea for a BlueRibbon magazine as the house vehicle for an organization that would involve more than just snowmobilers or dirt bikers, but would combine forces with different motorized recreation interest groups. I had just formed a local group similar to what we ended up with here with BlueRibbon Coalition.
I had been active in Idaho, working with people in other states. Eventually we expanded to have members in every state of union, and over 600 member organizations.

PSB: What has allowed the organization to thrive and be part of success stories like the national parks ban, while other organizations have fallen by the wayside?
CC: The strength of our organization is primarily dependent upon the strength of our member organizations. Our individual membership is really relatively small. We have a little less than 10,000 individual members, but we have member organizations all the way from some of the larger groups like the American Motorcyclists Association and the American Council of Snowmobile Associations right down to little local groups that might have 15 or 20 members. But the basic concept is that there’s strength in numbers; there are benefits to teaming with other recreation interest groups rather than trying to go it alone.
The watercraft users by themselves represent a rather sizable constituency, but when they are faced with attacks from the anti-recreation groups they need help. It’s actually a relatively small constituency in the grand scheme of things, but when teamed with snowmobilers and off-highway motorcyclists and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts — and now we even have a fairly strong mountain bike contingent within our organization and we also work very cooperatively with equestrian trail users around the country — we’re a much stronger group. The basic concept is that, through teamwork, we can accomplish a lot more than each group working individually.
We’ve seen a lot of examples of folks pitching in and getting involved with issues that don’t directly affect them, just because they know we have a common enemy in organizations out there that don’t want any of us out there recreating in our back-country areas.

PSB: The ongoing nemesis on the PWC side seems to continually be the Bluewater Network. What are your thoughts on the organization?
CC: They have lots of money. It seems that organizations on that side of the issues get lots of grant funding from folks that think that they’re doing something good for the environment. Those kinds of organizations have misled their supporters in my view, because I think we all are concerned about the environment. We all want to do the right thing, and have a clean environment, but those folks have stretched it to the point where their basic agenda is to restrict everyone’s activities but their own.
In a way, you kind of have to feel sorry for them in one respect, because I don’t think those folks are having much fun. They’re sure dedicated to their cause, but I know a lot of the folks on the other side of the issues, and they take it so serious that I think, in a way, we could feel sorry for them if they weren’t causing so much mischief. They really aren’t happy people.

PSB: They seemed to have a lot of early momentum, but once organizations like Blue Ribbon, the AWA, and most importantly, the enthusiasts got involved, the tide seemed to eventually turn. Is education and involvement the key to success?
CC: I think that’s the real key. The recreation community needs to understand that there are folks out there that want to eliminate their type of recreation, and that’s their mission in life. We’ve got to be involved to some degree. I’ve turned it into a vocation, this is my job, and we have a fairly sizable staff.
That’s one of the things, frankly, that motivated me to pursue this — the fact that folks on our side of the issue were dealing with professionals on the other side, with paid hired guns on the other side who were attempting to eliminate our form of recreation. And we were attempting to deal with those folks on a strictly volunteer basis. It takes a professional organization like we’ve formed to be able to effectively deal with those folks.
But the key is motivating the grass-roots enthusiasts out there to be somewhat involved. They don’t need to make it their life’s work, but they need to understand that they’ve got to be involved to some extent. They either need to be involved in something like the rallies we had down there in Lake Powell, or they need to be involved in helping to fund the advocacy efforts of organizations like ours.

PSB: What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of during your tenure?
CC: The situation on Lake Powell and Lake Mead for the personal watercraft users, I’m really proud of our successes there. They are largely the result of having a favorable administration in place, and I think that the recreation community played a big role in that. Our organization got information into the hands of recreation users all over the country about how important politics is in these land use issues. There were a lot of recreation folks involved in local campaigns and national campaigns.
It’s important for recreationists to understand how critical politics is to the future of our recreation choices, and to be involved.

PSB: You’ll be stepping down as executive director at the end of 2003. Why turn over the reins, and where do you — and the organization — go from here?
CC: It’s been over 16 years. I think it’s time to start the transition to different leadership for the organization, because I see the Blue Ribbon Coalition lasting a lot longer than I do. There’s a need for an organization like ours ongoing. Not just a temporary need, I think it’s a permanent need.
I’m going to stay involved in continuing to build the organization bigger and stronger, concentrate on building the leadership and raising the funding necessary to keep the organization growing. We’re dealing with anti-recreation-access organizations with million-dollar budgets, multi-million dollar budgets. They’re a formidable foe, and they don’t give up. We can’t give up either.
I’ve had people tell me that I’m the BlueRibbon Coalition all by myself, and I’m not, and I never have been. It’s always been a team effort. I’ve been able to keep it together and lead the organization, but it’s always been a team effort.

PSB: How can the PWC industry keep its positive momentum going, specifically in regard to access issues?
CC: We need to have a real focus on responsible user ethics. The personal watercraft user community is relatively young; it’s a relatively new sport. We need to have a real focus on responsible user ethics to do what we can about the irresponsible users. Hopefully the dealers can help with that by insuring that the machines are quiet. That’s one of the major issues that cause problems for the motorized sports across the board. Excessively noisy machines are hard to excuse.
This is an issue that’s really easy to do something about. The user ethics in regards to where they should and shouldn’t go, and how they should behave on the machine, that’s something where peer pressure can eventually help out in that regard. But the noise issue is something that the dealers can help with by insuring that they don’t sell noisy exhausts to their customers, that they advise their customers that obnoxiously noisy machines have the potential to reduce their recreation opportunities.
It would be good for the dealers to be delivering that message.

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