In a recent video by onX Offroad, they discuss some off-roading history and how it relates to efforts to protect the public lands most of this happens on. In this article, I want to share some interesting things from this video and hopefully share some important ways to protect public lands as electric trucks and SUVs become more capable. For some of us, these ideas will be new, but caring for nature means doing our best to respect it while enjoying it.
He starts the story in California’s Mojave Desert, at the East Mojave Heritage Trail. People come to this trail from all over the world to see the land just like generations of off-roaders before them. One important concept that comes into play right away is that you don’t really fully experience a place without learning more about it, and history is a big part of the journey. Just as you need a map to explore space, you need to know history to know where you are in time.
People didn’t always explore the desert in trucks and SUVs the way they do today. For the Mojave Desert, much of today’s explorer culture can be traced back to Aloha Wanderwell’s globe-spanning journey in a Ford Model T. While most of us don’t remember her almost a century later, she showed people that vehicles can be fun and not just for getting places, and that some of that fun happens far away from pavement and people.
What was particularly interesting about Aloha was that she started her journeys when she was just 16 years old! So, the rest of us have little excuse for not exploring.
In the Mojave Desert, the Wilhelm Family were local pioneers and adventurers. While they didn’t try to travel in every country, they did find ways to make vehicles that could reach places that they couldn’t before. At the time, there was no roads and few trails, so they built a vehicle that could just cross the desert like a horse. Their vehicle, called “Lena,” was custom made to go anywhere in a time when you couldn’t order parts for your vehicle and just bolt them on.
World War II changed things. The military use special vehicles to travel all over Europe and Asia, called the GP, but instead of saying “gee pee” soldiers often ran the letters together, calling the vehicles Jeeps. When the war ended, it was easy to get a surplus Jeep with 4-wheel drive and use it to go explore. My grandfather had a Jeep he used to explore the outdoors after earning a Purple Heart and helping liberate concentration camps in Europe, and many families have similar stories.
(I have a really, really cool series of articles coming about converting a replica of his Jeep to run on clean electric power, but you’ll need to wait a few months for that)
Another notable figure was Dennis Casper. Originally from Kansas, he fell in love with the Mojave while stationed at Twentynine Palms. He hiked the Mojave Trail twice with his 9-year-old daughter, but decided that he was done walking through the desert in the heat. But, he wasn’t ready to hang up his explorer hat, so he bought a Jeep and started using it to explore the area more. His stories ended up popularizing the Mojave Trail for vehicle travel, and people came from all over the world to see it for themselves.
In a time when California’s population was exploding and the US government wanted to designate some of the land as wilderness and close it to anybody who can’t handle the rigors of hiking it, it became clear that there was some risk of losing the Mojave Desert to development and heavy use in some areas and to wilderness designation in others. His love for the desert led him to want to protect it for future generations instead of watching it get overrun and fenced off.
Parts of the Mojave Trail got closed off in the 1990s, but just a few years ago an off-roader decided to try again and see about getting some limited access from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Billy Creech got legal access to these roads (existing roads are exempt from wilderness designations) and worked on improving the routes to make them not only passable, but compliant with environmental protection laws.
Today, the Mojave Heritage Trail not only attracts visitors from all over the world, but has attracted a community of people who loved it enough to make it their home. These people aren’t there to chew the place up and destroy it, but want to protect it because they enjoy it.
Ideas From onX For Protecting Public Lands Used By Off-Roaders
As the video shifts from history to the present, they say something that most off-road enthusiasts believe in, and it’s part of off-roading culture: “Preserving access to public lands requires a relentless devotion to protecting them.”
Deserts may seem lifeless, but they’re really full of life that moves and changes from day to day and as the seasons change. During the North American monsoon season, the parched desert tends to get a lot of water, and with that water, flooding. As climate changes, we see these flooding events happen more and more, causing issues not only for the animals and plants that live there, but for people trying to responsibly visit. Roads get washed out and impassible even for Jeeps and other vehicles made to get almost anywhere.
The problem with trail washouts isn’t the washout itself. Looking at all of the arroyos (dry creek beds) in American deserts are proof that washouts are mostly natural. The problem occurs when people on trails can’t get past the washout. This often leads to people trying to bypass the normal trail, leading to a widening of the trail and increased degradation of the natural environment. So, the work of volunteers maintaining trails is essential to limiting their impacts.
While I know some readers would just rather see nobody go into the area at all (for a true minimal impact), that’s also not a great option. When people aren’t allowed to enjoy an area responsibly, they stop caring as much about it. I’ve personally felt this way when I saw places closed, not because I don’t care for nature, but because I stop being part of the coalition of citizens supporting the regulatory efforts. Public lands that aren’t there for the public cease to be public lands.
An Opportunity To Further Improve Things
After watching this, I thought of the ways my family pitches in. One of them is that we’re moving our off-roading to electric power. While the average off-roader will stop to pick up trash and won’t tear up the landscape off established trails, there’s still a lot of room for making off-roading more environmentally friendly.
But, electrification alone isn’t enough. As more people take EVs out to explore, we need to make sure the culture of respect for the lands continues with the new entrants.
Featured image: A screenshot from the embedded video showing volunteers help map washouts to prevent trail widening.
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