Time to ban off-road vehicles from 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. 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” off-road vehicle (ORV) use and “a few bad apples” from thrillcraft promoters themselves as well as some government bureaucrats. 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 abuse that is acceptable. Working with agencies to create designated routes or play areas is just helping to legalize public vandalism.
Most people would never allow thrillcraft to run across their lawns. They would not tolerate such noise in their neighborhoods. Would we allow thrillcraft to do wheelies in the Arlington National Cemetery 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.
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 wives, smoking in a public place 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.
George Wuerthner is the author/editor of 34 books, including Oregon Wilderness Areas and Oregon Wildflower Hikes. His most recent is Thrillcraft — The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation.