Myth and Reality
The Image Problem of Off-Road Travel
Environmental Impact of Primitive Roads and Trails
Relative Environmental Impacts of Vehicles and Hikers
Misconceptions about Off-Pavement Travel
Real-Life Desert Exploration
Preparation and Environmental Awareness
Real Life Expedition Reports
Our Disappearing Roads and Trails
The California Desert Act
Protecting and Appreciating our Historical Heritage
A Positive Approach
Equal Access for All
A Better Approach to Environmental Protection
Links to Other Information Sources
The popular image of 4WD vehicle users as yahoos who tear up the landscape by irresponsible trail blazing and vehicular acrobatics is, happily, now largely a myth. In my many thousands of miles of desert travel on dirt roads and trails, I have yet to witness such behavior. (No doubt there are still a few who are irresponsible -- just as there are irresponsible backpackers.) The reality is that people nowadays use their 4WD vehicles as a means to access, explore and appreciate the great, remote natural areas of the back country. The vehicle users I have met in these areas are responsible appreciators of nature who adhere to the Tread Lightly principles -- a set of common-sense rules for low-impact travel by vehicle.
First established by the Forest Service, the Tread Lightly rules are now universally adopted by 4WD manufacturers, clubs and individuals. The most important rule is to drive only on established roads and trails. Cross-country trail blazing and other vehicular antics are now confined to designated "open areas". All other so-called "off-road" travel actually takes place ON established roads. This leads to much confusion in the use of the term "off-road" travel; a better term for what is actually meant would be "off-pavement" travel.
Since it takes place overwhelmingly ON established roads and trails, responsible "off-roading" has virtually no environmental impact -- and certainly no more than other forms of back country travel such as backpacking expeditions. In reality, off-pavement back country explorers have much in common with environmental groups, and 4WD clubs are frequently involved in environmental cleanup and conservation projects in collaboration with federal land management agencies. The negative image of four wheelers still persists in many peoples' minds, however, and it takes "getting involved" and hard work to change this situation.
If you use a vehicle of any kind to explore the back country, make sure you are a low impact user who leaves the area better than you found it. Follow the Tread Lightly rules and the Code of Recreational Ethics. In particular, drive only on established roads and trails. Pick up trash if you see any. Travel QUIETLY and be courteous to other back country users whether on foot or in vehicles.
Unfortunately, the myth of off-roaders as environmental vandals is still frequently put forward by some environmental advocates, in order to provide justification for closing primitive roads and trails in areas of isolation and scenic beauty. In actuality, use of these remote and primitive roads increases the traveller's appreciation of the widerness and has no real environmental impact -- as anyone who has explored them first hand can testify.
In typical desert terrain (the type of back country with which the present author is most familiar), the fraction of the surface area taken up by primitive vehicular routes is on the order of .01%. It is difficult, for anyone who views at first hand the insignificance of these roads and trails in the vastness of the surrounding landscape, to imagine how they can harm the overall ecology. Any disruptive effect of a modern, quiet, low polluting, Light-Treading 4X4 passing along such a road pales into insignificance beside such massive natural forces as flash floods, fires, rain and even winds -- or the deafening roar of aircraft from nearby military bases. In spite of this, dirt roads and trails are currently being closed in record numbers in the name of environmental protection, as a result of such measures as the California Desert Act.
The assumption that hikers cause less environmental damage than vehicles is false. Hikers are much less likely to carry out their litter, and much more likely to leave established trails, step on plants, and leave human waste and toilet paper lying about. They will, of necessity, spend more time in a given area, with more need to camp overnight -- usually near springs and water sources. They have greater need to forage and burn local firewood (unlike vehicle users who can carry in their own). Their longer travel times give rise to more pollution through human bodily waste, more opportunity for vandalism, and less likelihood of staying on established trails when compared with vehicular visitors. In the case of mishap they are much harder to find and get to, and place more strain on search and rescue resources than their vehicle-bound counterparts.
Ironically, in many protected areas cross-country hiking (with its virtual guarantee of flora and fauna disruption) is permitted and considered politically correct, while driving on an established road (where such disruption is physically impossible) is banned.
I and some of my 4WD friends have experienced first hand the relatively greater environmental impact of many hikers. One colleague commented: "I see more problems caused by hikers than by vehicles. Fouled water, littered camp areas, graffiti, "TP" littering the ground after the snow melt from winter backpackers, etc. being some examples."
All this is not to say that exploration on foot is bad; just that the common assertions by some environmental groups about the relative evils of vehicular travel are mostly false. Following responsible, low impact procedures is important in either case. There is a place for both forms of travel; indeed, for most of the population, including children, older citizens, those with chronic diseases, and the disabled, long desert hikes of several days are impossible, and primitive roads are the only practical way to access and appreciate the grand beauty and isolation of the remote wilderness.
Well-meaning environmental groups unfortunately exaggerate the effects of vehicular traffic in order to maximize land areas designated as roadless. For example, most off-roaders share the basic goal of "conservation of the natural environment" with the Sierra Club. However, its policy on off-road use of vehicles incorporates several of the myths alluded to earlier. Some excerpts from this policy follow (my observations in italics):
"Trails and areas on public lands should be closed to all vehicles unless (1) determined to be appropriate for their use through completion of an analysis, review, and implementation process, and (2) officially posted with signs as being open." [a "guilty until proven innocent" type of approach]..."off-road use of vehicles may result in .. soil damage... Erosion ... damage to stream banks, streams, and fish habitat... serious adverse impact on flora ... Disruption of wildlife ... weakened physical condition, death, and possible extinction of some species... "[None of these apply to responsible vehicle use ON established roads and trails in accordance with Tread Lightly principles; they assume reckless cross country trail blazing.] "... Danger to the safety of other land users because of vehicle speed, steep terrain, sharp curves, slippery or unstable trail surfaces ..."[ In reality, vehicles can manage no more than jogging speed in the type of terrain we are talking about here] "... potential to leave more litter" [Vehicle owners are actually more able and likely than hikers to carry their litter out] ... illegally or improperly operated vehicles can often create a fire hazard ...[as can illegal backpackers' campfires].
These and other misconceptions of some otherwise well-meaning environmental groups unfortunately tend to alienate vehicle users rather than promoting mutual respect; there is ample room to accommodate the needs of all users of public lands through cooperation and education.
Our Disappearing Roads and
The California Desert Act
Anyone now visiting the Mojave Desert finds red signs everywhere, announcing the closure of many of the dirt side roads which have been established, if infrequently travelled, vehicular routes since the first wagons came West. The recent huge rash of closures are a result of the California Desert Act, which many off-road vehicle users supported in the belief that responsible use of dirt roads would be largely unaffected. Most off-roaders are conservationists; however they believe in a balanced approach which preserves responsible, low impact access to our remote natural areas.
In the Death Valley area, a typical example (among many) of the Desert Act impact is the closure of Greenwater Canyon, a unique scenic and historic trail including impressive petroglyphs. As in many other closed areas, access on foot is impractical due to the canyon's length and lack of water. This has been a traditional travel route since ancient times, with vehicular traffic at least since the 1906 Greenwater copper rush. Access to large parts of the historic 20 Mule Team Borax Trail is also closed off by this and other recent actions. A red sign decorates the Lost Lake access road; it is hard to imagine any (eco)logical reason for closing such a veritable needle in the haystack of the surrounding hundred square miles of roadless area.
Everywhere, side roads leading to old mines or to nowhere in particular have the red sign blight, greatly reducing opportunities for exploring and environmental appreciation. A partial list of closures in Death Valley alone affects at least a dozen areas and trails, relegating much of Roger Mitchell's classic "Death Valley Jeep Trails" to history. In short, the possibilities for desert exploration and appreciation are greatly reduced.
While having no conceivable environmental benefit (and making management, fire control and rescue operations in such areas more difficult and expensive), the recent excessive closures in the Mojave are having the unintended side effect of politically mobilizing the massive SUV-owning, tax paying public who support bona-fide conservation, but object to being arbitrarily excluded from environmentally responsible enjoyment of their own public lands.
Many of the roads affected by "environmental" measures are of historic importance and have been used by wheeled vehicles since time immemorial. Denying access prevents us and our children from exploring our historical roots. How, for example, can we relive and appreciate the experience of the pioneers bouncing and jolting westward in their covered wagons if, as is likely, large sections of the original California Trail are closed to wheeled traffic? How can we view and appreciate remote petroglyphs or revisit the drama of early mining rushes if historic access roads like Greenwater Canyon are closed? Will the experience of reliving the immortal Death Valley 20 Mule Team Borax Trail be lost forever? Indeed, the existing wheel tracks of such trails would soon be obliterated altogether by vegetation and erosion if not kept in existence by the continuing passage of wheeled traffic.
The proliferation of narrowly defined "Wilderness Areas", in which access on foot only is permitted, is an inequitable, elitist means of environmental preservation (in addition to being inefficient in terms of environmental management). Restricting access to experienced long distance hikers only is a civil rights violation, as it excludes the disabled, children, the elderly and frail, and anyone without unlimited time and the superb fitness needed for long desert hikes. The Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, guarantees equal access to all public facilities, of which publicly owned remote scenic areas are certainly an important component. For most people, in fact, the only chance to access and appreciate the truly remote back country is by vehicle. In practice, many closures exclude even hikers, since it is physically impossible to carry several days' water and camping equipment across hot, waterless deserts.
Clearly, taxpayers of all stripes have a right to access their own public land; reform of legislation and management practices which effectively exclude the majority of the public are therefore urgently needed. If you'd like to participate in such efforts, contact some of the organizations and email groups listed in the "Getting Involved" section of this page.
(In a similar vein, other public facilities such as the World Wide Web should be accessible to all users; see Web Access for Blind and Visually Impaired Users for information on how to ensure your web pages are as user-friendly as possible for visitors with visual disabilities).
Ironically, if environmental damage allegedly caused by illegal vehicle use was a significant problem, attempting to close the backroads and trails would not prevent it. Indeed, such closures exclude the law abiding while posing no obstacle to the lawless. (Interestingly, many if not most closures may themselves be illegal since they violate pre-existing rights of access under such laws as RS 2477). To make matters worse, closing the remote primitive roads channels all traffic into the already overcrowded main visitor routes and areas, worsening their environmental impact.
The taxpayer deserves to have reasonable access to his own land; recent moves to seriously impair such access rights could jeopardize the support of many of the conservation movement's natural allies in the ongoing effort to preserve and enjoy our natural heritage. A much better approach to avoiding environmental damage is to restore access to primitive roads and trails, and encourage the Tread Lightly principles through a combination of education and law enforcement. It is here that the code of recreational ethics and motto of the Blue Ribbon Coalition "Preserving the natural resources FOR the public instead of FROM the public!" comes into play. Instead of assuming the vehicle owning public (who, after all, are the majority) are irresponsible environmental wreckers, why not take a positive approach through education?
If you are concerned about roads and trails being closed in your state, become informed and participate in reversing this trend by contacting the information sources listed below, and don't forget to write, fax, E-mail and visit your Congressman. Write to the government agencies implementing the Desert Act and other land use measures; get on their planning process mailing lists.
Why not take a minute right now and email the US House of Representatives Committee on Resources, simply by clicking here, to tell them of your concerns?
Also, join and donate money to organizations fighting for your cause. Why spend $20,000 on a 4X4 if you have nowhere to use it? Clubs can organize educational programs and backcountry trips for Congressmen and their staff, so they can experience real-life, responsible vehicle use and appreciate first hand the obvious lack of environmental impact of these roads as well as their practical necessity for accessing remote areas.
Join the Public Land Use Issues email list for an informed discussion of the issues and participation in the political process.
Here are some links to organizations and discussion groups dealing with preservation of, and responsible access to, our public lands:
Land Use Network:
Information and alerts about preserving responsible access to back country
roads and trails.
Public Land Use Issues Mail List Dedicated to: I.Responsible multiple use of our lands and natural resources; II.Non-use of appropriate areas; III.Educating our politicians and our fellow users; and IV.Conservation of our resources and opportunities to enjoy them.
Blue Ribbon Coalition: Preserving natural resources FOR the public instead of FROM the public
RS 2477 Page: Information on laws preventing closure of established roads and trails
Historic Access Recovery Project (HARP): More info on laws protecting road access
High Desert Multiple Use Coalition : "Conservation not Confiscation"
Utah Wilderness Education Project For an objective view of "Wilderness" issues
CA4WDC: California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs.
United Four Wheel Drive Association: National 4WD organization
4X4NOW: Information on all aspects of four wheeling
Desert Exploration: Preparation tips and trip reports on off-pavement Desert Expeditions
Range Rovers: The soft-treading 4x4s.