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Edited by: John Stewart

Environmentally Responsible Off-Pavement Travel: Part I

Myth and Reality - The Image Problem of Off-Road Travel
By John Barbyns

Travelling a Dirt Road;
Photo by J. Barbyns

Image: Travelling a Dirt Road

The popular image of 4WD vehicle users as yahoos who tear up the landscape by irresponsible trail blazing and vehicular acrobatics is, happily, 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 a few 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-highway" 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-highway 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.

Be Responsible!

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 Blue Ribbon Coalition 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, horseback, or in vehicles.

Environmental Impact of Primitive Roads and Trails

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 less than .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 Protection Act.

Relative Environmental Impacts of Vehicles and Hikers

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, and "TP" littering the ground after the snow melt from winter backpackers 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.

Misconceptions about Off-Pavement Travel

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.

Part I - Myth and Reality: The Image Problem of Off-Road Travel

Part II - Our Disappearing Roads and Trails and The California Desert Protection Act

Part III - Real-Life Desert Exploration
Find out what environmentally responsible off-pavement travel in the desert is really like, and how it enhances the appreciation of our environment and historical heritage.

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