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Dedicated to conservation and multiple use of public lands for recreation opportunities.

Edited by: John Stewart

Environmentally Responsible Off-Pavement Travel - Part II

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

Travelling a Dirt Road
Photo by J. Barbyns

Image: Travelling a Dirt Road

Anyone now visiting the Mojave Desert of Southern California finds 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 Protection 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 California Desert Protection 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 closed 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 closed 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.

Protecting and Appreciating our Historical Heritage

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.

A Positive Approach: Equal Access for All

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.

A Better Approach to Environmental Protection

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?

Getting Involved

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 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? Or, contact your senator or representativies throught the US Senate and US House of Representativies web sites.

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 off-highway 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.

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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