Flashing red and blue lights sent me a strong message: I was busted.

Flashing red and blue lights sent me a strong message: I was busted.

I had just passed a truck as I entered a small coastal town and neglected to slow down. I was caught red-handed.

Deterrents work. Toddlers get scolded. Teenagers get grounded. Grownups get fines and jail sentences. Yet there is one area in our society where deterrents are rare — abuse of our public lands.

Lack of funding prevents effective policing of our Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands nationwide. The sad result is you can't find a range or forest that hasn't been trashed by lawless fools who parade around on their all-terrain vehicles or four-wheel-drive rigs and flaunt the law.

Here's a local example: near my home in southwestern Oregon, there's a parcel of BLM land that we call the Green Tops. It's outstanding winter range for blacktailed deer and Roosevelt elk and has abundant quail, wild turkeys and poison oak. As a boy, I planted pine trees on its slopes for science class, hunted squirrels below its oaks and once packed out a 25-pound rock as a gift for my mom. To hike to the top, it takes a 12-year-old about 50 minutes.

But that's too much work for some people. Recently, mud-boggers plundered Green Tops. In 2006, the damage was so bad that BLM shut down the area to all motorized use. It was not a day too soon. I took advantage of the new peace and quiet, hiked up near the top last May and shot a nice turkey.

Along the way, I was troubled by what had become of my childhood stomping grounds. Illegal ATV trails had torn up the meadows and rutted slopes were the result; piles of beer cans and cartons, broken glass, washing machines, cut fences and other assorted garbage were strewn about. We always hear "it's a small minority of people that do this damage." Maybe, but with nearly 4 million people in Oregon and 300 million nationwide, there are a heck of a lot of idiots to police. And they're rarely getting policed.

This spring in the Klamath Basin, state troopers caught a band of mud-boggers who ripped up one of the best redband trout spawning streams. The stream had only recently been rehabbed from past abuse.

We hear the excuses. "ATVs allow the old and physically limited to hunt or access our public lands." I am all for responsible access, and the 60,000-plus miles of Forest Service roads in Oregon provide plenty of access. Besides, any game warden will tell you that nine out of 10 folks on ATVs are men in their 30s, healthy and fully capable of walking. They make a conscious choice to use ATVs — cutting corners and doing things the easy way.

Sadly, every time people hunt illegally from their ATVs, trash our public lands and use high-tech goodies that violate fair chase, they give animal rights activists and the nonhunting public even more ammo to further restrict hunting.

Today's high-tech motorized craze has altered the way I enjoy the outdoors. I rarely hunt weekends anymore, choosing instead to burn valuable vacation days. I cherish the time I hunt with my children and want them to understand how important, traditional and meaningful it is, but don't want to subject them to weekend mayhem. Hunting's not supposed to be easy.

If we are to maintain our outdoor heritage, we must stop motorized off-road abuse. Individuals who use ATVs appropriately have as much to lose as anyone.

Folks who abuse public land understand the language of heavy fines, arrest, lost hunting privileges or confiscated vehicles. If states required license plates for ATVs, they would guarantee better accountability. And sportsmen must insist that our state and federal agencies fund more law enforcement so our hard-working and overextended game wardens can be more effective. Attend agency travel management meetings, write letters and get involved. If we don't, my kids and yours lose.

Yeah, I drive a little more carefully after the county sheriff slapped me with my well-deserved speeding ticket. Deterrents work.

Mike Beagle is a former U.S. Army officer and Oregon high school teacher and coach. He works with sportsmen for Trout Unlimited and lives with his family near Eagle Point.