There's something distinctly American about the rugged individualism associated with off-road recreation; it's just you, your vehicle and your own path through the wilds of nature. There is also something painfully ironic about a sport that prizes the beauty of untouched wilderness while running it over with huge knobby tires.

As off-roading -- a sport that includes ATVs, off-highway motorcycles, snowmobiles and four-wheel-drive vehicles like Jeeps and pickup trucks -- becomes more and more popular, it poses more of a threat to the health of remote natural habitats.

But off-roaders aren't the only culprits. The truth is that all outdoor recreation presents a risk to fragile ecosystems. If campers leave food and trash at a campsite, it can attract bears and clog streams with debris. Overfishing can deplete endangered marine populations into extinction. Even hikers can disturb the natural balance of a forest by tromping through sensitive breeding areas.

Experienced outdoor enthusiasts know that the future of their favorite activities relies on increased awareness of ethical recreation practices and active stewardship of the land on which they play.

In 1985, the U.S. Forestry Service launched the Tread Lightly! program to address the impact of outdoor recreation -- and off-road driving in particular -- on the great outdoors itself. In 1990, Tread Lightly! moved to the private sector, where it's now managed as a non-profit. The organization has become a powerful advocate for outdoor education and sustainable land management.

Tread Lightly! works closely with the public by training thousands of ordinary citizens to be Tread Trainers that promote the program's message in their communities. The organization also partners with industry leaders like Goodyear, Yamaha and Jeep to promote the ethical outdoor use of their products.

Keep reading to learn more about the mission and founding principles of Tread Lightly! and how you can get involved.