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ORVs on the Public Lands

by GEORGE WUERTHNER

Right now various National Forests and BLM districts are beginning to put together travel management plans. Most of these plans are focused on corralling the growing abuse of our public lands by thrillcraft-ATVs, dirt bikes, dune buggies, swamp buggies, jet skis, snowmobiles, and other associated toys used by neotenous adults. Many citizens are agonizing over which parts of our public domain should be designated legalized abusement parks, and which lands should be protected from such abuse. The underlying assumption of all these travel management plans is that some level of abuse and vandalism of our public domain by thrillcraft owners is inevitable.

I do not accept the premise that abuse of our lands is something that we must tolerate as inevitable. It is our land. It is our children’s land, and their children’s land. We have a responsibility to pass these lands on to the next generation in better condition than we found them. And we have a collective responsibility to protect our national heritage against the thrillcraft menace.

The real problem isn’t the machines. It’s not even the people. Many otherwise decent people ride thrillcraft, but when they straddle one of these machines they become participants in a dysfunctional culture. It is a culture that sees our public land as nothing more than a giant sandbox. Thrillcraft culture represents a lack of respect for other people’s property and the quality of their outdoor experience. What people do on their own property is not my concern, but when they ride their machines on public lands it becomes a societal issue. Our public lands are as close as our society has to shared “sacred” ground.

The operation of any thrillcraft has a disproportional impact upon the landscape, wildlife and other people. Thrillcraft pollute the air and water. They compact soils. They damage wetlands and riparian areas. They spread weeds. They displace wildlife. The noise, speed, and general disregard for other people by thrillcraft owners displace other non-motorized users of our public lands. Increasingly they threaten archeological treasures. How can any of this be considered “responsible” use?

You hear a lot about “responsible” ORV use and “a few bad apples” from thrillcraft promoters themselves, as well as some government bureaucrats. But these are misleading terms to say the least. What is responsible about tearing up the land? It’s like suggesting we ought to promote “responsible wife abuse” or “responsible child abuse.” There is no level of violence to our lands that is acceptable. Working with agencies to create designated routes or play areas is just helping to legalize public vandalism. There is no way to use these machines in a responsible manner except to leave them parked in a driveway.

I find it extremely ironic we would arrest someone as a vandal who had spray painted a Forest Service sign-a human made artifact that is easily repaired–but we assume it is perfectly legal right now for someone to tear up miles of our public lands for fun that may take decades or centuries to heal if at all-with no consequences? Where is the parity?

Most people would never allow thrillcraft to run across their lawns. They would not tolerate such noise in their neighborhoods. They would not accept being run off their sidewalks and pathways in their towns by motorized hoodlums racing along at unsafe speeds. Would we allow thrillcraft to do wheelies in the Arlington National Cemetary, or crawl up the Lincoln Memorial? I think not. And I see no reason to permit similar antics on the rest of our public lands.

Some proponents try to brand those fighting the thrillcraft invasion as “elitist.” But what could be more elitist than imposing noise, pollution, and just general havoc upon others? You don’t need a machine to have fun or to access the public lands. A pair of sneakers and a willingness to make a little personal effort is all that one needs to enjoy our wonderful public spaces. This is not about excluding people. It’s about excluding their hurtful machines.

We Americans need to stand up against this ill-treatment of our common heritage. To me the burning of an American Flag is nothing compared to the deliberate destruction of our public lands for kicks. It’s time for true American patriots to stand up and be willing to call these activities for what they are-vandalism or worse. If these motorheads want to run around in circles in their own backyards, have at it, but they have no place on the public lands.

It’s time to ban all recreational use of thrillcraft from the public domain. I personally can not understand how anyone can make deals about thrillcraft abuse. Why is it wrong or bad to operate these machines in one place and not another. Isn’t the damage equally as bad? If it’s not acceptable on some of our public lands, it’s really not acceptable on any public lands. We need to get beyond the idea that we need to “compromise” on abuse. There is no compromise on some things.

To those who think we have to accept thrillcraft because they are “traditional” activities, I remind them that the same arguments were once made about segregation, beating up your wife, about smoking in public places, and many other behaviors and cultural “traditions” that were once commonplace. Society now views these things as wrong, and has outlawed them.

There is no right way to do the wrong thing. Running thrillcraft on our public lands is wrong. It’s not good for the land. It’s not good for the air and water. It’s not good for wildlife. It’s not good for other people. It’s not even good for the people doing it. It’s time to ban these machines, not legitimize the continued destruction of our sacred public commons.

* “The Moronic Sport” courtesy of Doug Peacock.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, writer and photographer with 34 published books, including Wild Fire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy and Montana, Magnificent Wilderness and, most recently, Thrillcraft: the Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation.

 

 

 

 

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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