AKRON-Marketers of tires for motorcycles and sport/utility vehicles are cautiously eyeing the status of a Congressional bill that could keep off-road enthusiasts away from more than 6.5 million acres of California desert. But the possible effect the California Desert Protection Act could have on the sport/utility tire industry remains uncertain, said officials at a number of California-based tire marketing companies.
In all likelihood, though, they expect sport/utility tire sales will take a hit-at least a light one-should Congress approve the act.
The desert protection act, separate versions of which cleared the Senate and House earlier this year, would create the 1.5 million-acre Mojave National Park east of Barstow and add 1.3 million and 232,000 acres of land to the Death Valley National Monument and Joshua Tree National Monument, respectively. It also would designate another 3.5 million acres of desert as wilderness areas.
Most of the off-road trails currently running through those areas would become off-limits.
Environmentalists say the act is needed to preserve the delicate ecosystem of the vast California desert from the trails and disruption created by off-road vehicles.
``There are people who say, `I should be able to drive my vehicle anywhere my vehicle can go,' '' noted Eldon Hughes of the Sierra Club, which has campaigned for the act over the past eight years. ``Well, you can't.''
But sport/utility tire marketers and enthusiast groups say the act limits too much land.
The California Four-Wheel Drive Association, of which Carson, Calif.-based Dick Cepek Inc. is a corporate member, contends the act is a ``blatant land grab by environmentalists,'' according to Harry Baker, former association president.
The group believes, among other things, that the bill would close off land to young children and senior citizens, who can only reach the areas by riding vehicles. They also believe, Mr. Baker said, that the act will force four-wheelers to concentrate in smaller and smaller areas of the desert.
``People will still go out, and there will be more damage in a smaller area,'' he said. ``Then (environmentalists) are going to point to us and say, `See, you can't take care of what you've got.' ''
Still, no one seems to expect the act will have a large impact on sport/utility tire sales in the near future because few owners of those types of vehicles ever leave the safety of paved roads.
``We know the majority of our products go for sport/utility vehicles that are used on the road,'' said Michael A. Husted, president of Dick Cepek, a major marketer and retailer of sport/utility tires and equipment in California.
Mr. Husted roughly estimated the number of off-road enthusiasts in that state at 36,000.
``It's difficult to say how much we'll be affected. Numbers are always hard to come up with,'' he said. ``I don't think it will be too many (people that give up four-wheeling).''
Fewer than 100 four-wheel drive enthusiasts would give up the sport altogether should the land be closed off, Mr. Baker predicted.
``If you only lose 2 percent, then that's a hit on the market,'' he said. ``But that's all you'll lose.''
What should be more of a concern is the future of off-road sporting, according to David Damron, owner of Chaparall Cycle Supply, a San Bernardino-based retailer of sport/utility equipment and tires, motorcycles and watercraft.
With less area to ride in, people interested in taking up off-roading might be compelled to do something else, Mr. Damron argued.
``People with discretionary income are going to spend it on something,'' he said. ``If a guy who wants to get into (off-roading) has trouble finding somewhere to go, he's going to say, `Screw it!' and go buy golf clubs.''