The West was once their playground, but the tide of public opinion and government policy is turning against users of off-highway vehicles and personal watercraft.

Environmentalists, safety advocates and federal land managers have won a number of recent fights to keep the machines out of traditional recreation areas and established wilderness areas.Off-roaders and watercraft riders are furious at the latest limitations on their freedom to roam.

"It seems like every week there's another closure," Utah Trail Machine Association executive director Brian Louw said. "The government doesn't care (that) the outdoors are for everyone."

Anti-machine activists say the recent spate of closures may signal a change in a traditional Western outlook that honors individualism over the herd. They plan to continue challenging the machines throughout Utah and the West.

"It's going to be a fight to the death," Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Heidi MacIntosh said.

In the past eight months, three high-profile Utah recreation areas have been partially or completely closed to off-road traffic. Depending on the outcome of negotiations over new wilderness designations in Utah, many more trails could be closed.

"There is definitely (a trend)," MacIntosh said. "OHVs are becoming so prevalent now that you really can't go anywhere without seeing the scars. There's a backlash against that.

"You're talking about damaging the environment for the sake of a thrill. I think some people are starting to wake up."

Dustin Sweetin is an off-highway vehicle and Jet Ski dealer in Lindon who also sits on the state's nine-member OHV Advisory Council. He said "apathy" and a lack of understanding of the issues on the part of riders are the primary reasons for the recent closures.

"I think you've got an environmental community that's fewer in number but larger in support," Sweetin said. "The (OHV and personal watercraft) users are out being active . . . but they're not organized to protect their interests."

While supporters tout OHVs as vehicles for exploration and fun, many others describe them as smoke-belching, terrain-mulching monsters that leave a trail of destruction. Similar complaints are targeted at snowmobiles in the winter.

In November 1997, the Bureau of Land Management proposed closing 212 miles of vehicle routes in the scenic San Rafael Swell of southern Utah. And on July 22, the U.S. House Resources Committee approved a plan to designate 630,000 acres of the Swell as a National Conservation Area, limiting OHV access to many areas.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered Canyonlands National Park to close a 10-mile-long trail through Salt Creek Canyon. The court claimed the vehicles were shredding a fragile ecosystem and creating unwelcome noise and pollution.

Also in July, the BLM decided to close over 14,000 acres of plateaus, canyons and federal sand dunes near southern Utah's Coral Pink Sand Dunes Recreation Area, a favorite spot for OHV users from Utah, Arizona and Nevada.

"(OHV users) always feel like this is the first step to total closure," said Verlin Smith, manager of the BLM's Kanab Resource Area. "We tell them that's not the case, but it keeps happening."

Personal watercraft are perhaps even more reviled than OHVs. They are propelled by water jets created by high-speed pumps, which are powered by gasoline engines. According to industry estimates, there are more than 1 million personal watercraft in use nationwide.

Detractors say the craft are intolerably noisy and can leave a trail of oil on the water. Because almost anyone can operate one and quickly reach speeds of 60 mph, the watercraft are involved in a disproportionate number of accidents.

On July 8, the National Park Service rattled personal watercraft enthusiasts when it announced plans to ban the machines from most of the waterways it manages.

The bans also have taken hold in local communities. On July 19, the Washington State Supreme Court affirmed the right of San Juan County (Washington) to bar watercraft from the county's vast, pristine waterways north of Seattle.

Sweetin said his Jet Ski sales have been cut in half over the past two years by the negative publicity surrounding the vehicles.

"People come in and say, `So, Lake Powell's closed (to watercraft)?' " Sweetin said. "It's not, but the talk about closures makes people hesitant. They're afraid that if they buy, they won't have anywhere to ride."

Machine advocates have always seen their popular pursuits as an extension of a uniquely Western way of life. If anyone's ability to explore and enjoy the outdoors is limited, they argue, the West will lose another element of its allure and mystique.

"They're liars," Louw said of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "We're the true environmentalists. We just believe that this nation is for everybody, not for one particular environmental group."

Utah's OHV Advisory Council, a part of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, has been outspoken in objecting to the limitations. Earlier this year, the council published a newsletter for the state's 35,000 off-road vehicle owners in which riders were encouraged to lobby against two wilderness bills in Congress that would restrict access.

"We've got to be as organized and receptive as the environmental groups or we're going to get beat," Sweetin said.

Cooperation with land managers is also important in preserving riding areas, Sweetin said. Trail riders in Wyoming recently agreed to work with the BLM on conservation efforts in a popular recreation area north of Gillette.

OHV users point out that many trail machine riders, unlike most of their waterborne counterparts, contribute to the preservation of wilderness through trail maintenance and litter control.

"Nobody hears about the good things we do because everybody concentrates on the `big, noisy machines that are destroying everything we touch,' " said Louw, who personally maintains a stretch of Utah County's Great Western Trail.

Louw's organization is in the process of forming a nonprofit division called the Utah Shared Access Alliance, or USA-All. Louw said the group has begun an earnest fund-raising drive in hopes of counteracting the lobbying efforts of environmental groups.

"We'll work for everybody that likes to enjoy the backcountry," Louw said, "and not just environmentalists who think they know what's best for everyone else."