What Off Road Vehicles Do (part 3)


In the last two posts, we talk about how off road vehicles continually break the law in going—well, off road—and how their noise and disturbance fragment habitat and push public-lands policies toward more development by turning vague routes into established roads.  In some instances ORVs are exclusively to blame for  the endangerment of a species—such as at Sand Mountain, Nevada, formerly “Singing Sand Mountain” until it was overrun by machines churning to dust the habitat of the Sand Mountain blue butterfly.  The Center for Biological Diversity writes that the butterfly “is closely linked to Kearney buckwheat; larvae feed exclusively on the plant, and adult butterflies rely on its nectar as a primary food source. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Land Management has allowed off-road vehicle use to destroy much of the Kearney buckwheat that once thrived on the dunes at Sand Mountain.” [1]

Agency inertia is easily the most immediate reason the ORVs have caused so much damage, since law enforcement is underfunded, and because policy-makers obviously don’t make a priority of protecting the terrain that’s entrusted to them.  The Center for Biological Diversity had to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service to even get a response to a petition to list the blue butterfly under the Endangered Species Act, and the agency’s response was that they wouldn’t do it.  “Not warranted.”  There aren’t even any jobs being held hostage in this situation and others like it (such as manatees being killed by speedboats in Florida).  This is recreation and nothing more, taking ever more animals and plants from the biological legacy of the planet.

One reason why opposition to ORVs and the destruction they cause is so feeble and inadequate is because the issue has been miscast as a user-group conflict, where one gang of wealthy elitists is trying to corner access to common lands at the expense of another.  This human-centered perception forgets entirely that other beings’ lives depend on the land and water at stake.  A sea-kayaker friend of mine in Montana told me how she used to resent jet-skis and speedboats on lakes she paddles on, but decided she was just going to accept it.  “I started feeling selfish,” she told me.  But her peace and quiet is the least of it—wakes from motorized watercraft swamp bird’s nests, including in that case the loon, whose haunting iconic call is being silenced.  Also, the oil and fuel spilled by gasoline engines is toxic to fish, birds, and invertebrates.  So while the kayaker’s acceptance of the destruction wrought by others might make her feel nicer and ostensibly more democratic, she’s turning her back on the living creatures she presumably values.

And the entitlement taken by the ORVers themselves is even more aggressive and unconcerned for living things.  In some long-ago argument with a motorcyclist enraged by new restrictions on off-roading in the Mojave Desert, he shouted, “It’s the fucking desert!  Nothing lives out there!”  Anyone who’s even spent any time there knows this is ridiculous.  The Mojave is being dismembered piecemeal by solar energy projects, military bases, and an ever-worsening ORV infection; desert tortoises are being driven ever closer to extinction, along with every other Mojave lizard, snake, ground-nesting bird—many living things—in the way of the dominant culture’s activities.  It’s just another expression of what privileged access to limited and stolen resources does.  Another friend told me “I was working the booth at Sand Flats”—a Bureau of Land Management recreation area just outside Moab—“during Jeep Week.  There were thousands and thousands of ORVers in town.  I looked out the window and saw a woman smack her little boy upside the head, a guy dump his ashtray out in the parking lot, and a line of maybe forty Humvees waiting to follow each other around the backcountry.  This was just after the Iraq invasion, and I remember thinking, ‘This is everything that’s wrong with America, in one frame.  This is what we’re killing strangers for.  For oil to do this.’”  That same week, my housemate, a waiter at the local brewery, told me how he’d been tipped twenty-five cents—spitefully, to his face—because the burger he brought a jeeper wasn’t quite hot enough.  “That’s why we all call it ‘Cheap Week,’” he said.  The week you see wealthy ORV tourists swaggering around in t-shirts reading: the best trails are illegal.

Once on Cedar Mesa, in Southeast Utah, I watched a quad (4-wheel ORV) veer to intentionally crush a dozing snake.  The ORVer drove off and the reptile churned and writhed in the machine’s track, dead or near dead as its nerve’s electricity popped and struggled and ran down.  I went to it, to witness its pointless death—it was a thick and handsome bull snake, yellow with a brown pattern, maybe mistaken for a rattlesnake by the quad driver—and it spun its remaining instances out bleeding from a ragged slit in its flattened, strong and fragile body, prolapsed organs dragging in the dirt.  Why?  Why do this?  What drives this sick, stupid behavior?  Why does our culture hate every living thing?  I lifted the snake into the sage and blackbrush so it could at least die with a small bit of dignity.  “If they can’t evolve to get out of the way,” someone once told me about road killed animals, “then that’s their problem.”  Of course, not evolving to changing conditions is what causes anything’s extinction.  And there’s really no doubt that our culture will not voluntarily evolve to transform the worsening conditions that industry and recreation are creating on the planet.  So how does anyone fight activity like this?  How do we stop ORVs?  Is this something to focus limited energy and resources on?

An experienced activist advising us on how to best use our time said, “It’s easy to get angry at someone so obviously disrespecting the land.  In terms of permanent impacts, though, industry is much worse.”   This brings everything back to the larger picture, the enormous scale of destruction being carried out.  Of course what runs it is oil.  Always this—the temporary, illusory power locked in a liquid hydrocarbon, driving ORVs, factory fishing trawlers, factory farms, industrial agriculture.  It’s warming the atmosphere and leading us to a horribly difficult future, where most of us will be unable to afford the lifestyle we’ve been subjected and addicted to.  Remove the oil and the engines stop, and a besieged biosphere can begin to heal.  In the meanwhile…ORVs, just one part of the picture, continue to cut apart what little wild life remains, the last seed bank of evolution as we’ll ever know it.

Anger can be paralyzing because it feels powerful but by itself has no material accomplishment.  That emotion is right and correct, and needs an articulate means of becoming real and effective, whatever those means may be.  The loons, the snakes, the too-slow creatures smeared across the roads and ground under rubber tires into the dirt, they and the people yet to come that won’t be able to live as we have because the resources are gone—none of them will care about our abstract, self-indulgent moral wrestling.  These are the walls that human supremacy has built around us, and we scarcely see them.  We progressives like to talk about how hatred of “other” races cannot be tolerated, but we hardly ever extend this principle to the non-human world, our constant victim of violence, because we’ve been conditioned to believe that people—kayakers and jet skiers alike—are all that matter, the only thing that really counts.  So our debates, such as they are, get framed inside this institution: human supremacy.  The sword our cultures wields, day and in and day out.

Author and entomologist E.O. Wilson, asked if most species would go extinct if enough are killed and their ecosystems collapse, writes: “The only answer anyone can give is: possibly.  By the time we find out, however, it might be too late.  One planet, one experiment.” [2]


1: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/Sand_Mountain_blue_butterfly/index.html

2: Wilson, Edward O.  (1999.)  The Diversity of Life.  New York, NY.:  W.W. Norton and Company.  182.

About Michael Carter

Activist and author of Kingfisher's Song: Memories Against Civilization, Wasteland Press, 2012. View all posts by Michael Carter

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