How to Stop Off Road Vehicles (Part 2, Aboveground Cultures of Resistance)

Coyote Canyon, southeast Utah

Coyote Canyon, a small rocky tributary to Kane Springs Creek on Bureau of Land Management property just south of Moab, Utah, has become another off road vehicle (ORV) trail.  Like many such trails, it began illegally, when specialized, expensive ORVs called “rock crawlers” began using it without BLM authorization.

Now, after an Environmental Analysis prompted by ORV users, Coyote Canyon is in the BLM’s words “an extreme trail specifically designated for rock crawler-type vehicles only. The route is one-way up a small canyon and down another, and although it is only 0.65 miles long can easily take all day to navigate as refrigerator-sized boulders must be traversed. Only HEAVILY modified vehicles can make it through. This route provides rock crawler enthusiasts an opportunity to challenge both their rigs and skills in a unique setting.” [1]  One of the main reasons ORVers wanted the “unique setting” is that a roll-over accident, not uncommon to rock-crawlers, won’t pitch the vehicle and its occupants off a cliff.

Neighboring private landowners John Rzeczycki and Kiley Miller, who fought the originally illegal ORV use of the canyon, tried to stop the BLM from officially opening it last summer.  Miller pleaded with the public via every venue she could think of to write letters to the BLM opposing the move; yet ORV interests grossly outnumbered the effort.  Among her friends, fewer than ten even bothered writing letters, and when the decision to open the canyon to ORVs was made, the BLM didn’t even bother notifying the respondents, a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.  But otherwise the agency had prepared its documents thoroughly and Miller was advised that a legal challenge probably wouldn’t have been effective.  Although the BLM offered a number of concessions—the trail is only open Friday and Saturday to registered users, from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., among other restrictions—illegal activity has been legitimized and rewarded, at public expense and the sacrifice of another dwindling scrap of land.

This example shows a couple of reasons why those who are trying desperately to protect the land are losing so badly.  One is fear of reprisals from others; another is a reasonable assumption that their efforts will be ineffective (though of course no effort will certainly be ineffective).  In a larger-scale sense, people tend to accept whatever situation they’re given, whether that’s herding reindeer or building nuclear weapons.  It’s uncommon to question an established arrangement, whatever it may be, and if one continues to question it, life gets more uncomfortable.  A rebel of any sort faces ridicule, accusations of poor mental, emotional and social adjustment, eventual ostracizing and occasionally murder.  Yet social changes demand challenges to established practice.  The momentum of established civilized practice is now enormous—seemingly unstoppable.  Yet its terminal is global destruction, the eradication of most if not all life.  Either participation or challenge means something difficult, perhaps something awful; it’s an impossible situation.  So most of us ignore it.  When the BLM announced their decision to open Coyote Canyon to oil spills, noise, litter, piles of human dung and soiled flags of toilet paper, Miller again pleaded with her friends to help, but almost everyone offered only a passing moment of sympathy.  Not “what can I do,” not “what are our options,” but “that’s too bad.”

Another reason we lose fights like this one so frequently is the opposition—in this case a well-organized special interest group—is so much more ready to rush to their common cause.  The right-wing tends to be more accepting of orders.  The boss says jump, they say how high.  They also see something to gain—it’s a position of advocacy, from their point of view a positive thing.  They have something tangible they’re working for, a thing they like doing.  They stand to gain something, whereas resistance stands only to prevent something, at least in situations like Coyote Canyon.

Progressives have tended to become lazy and fatalistic and cynical.  In issues that we can influence relatively easily (like public land use), we’ve allowed opponents to miscast conflict as elitist user-group obstruction, allowed the enemy to ridicule our love of the wild world, and so have given away our power.  We’ve become paralyzed by the spectacle of loss, and allowed our privilege to make us cowards.  Resistance is hard.  It means making one’s self unpopular, a difficult thing to do among those who’ve been taught their whole lives that popularity is everything.  Many progressives have been bled off by non-confrontational dogma, by an attachment to intoxicating feel-good-ness, by the idea they’re forever isolated individuals and that any praxis of serious organized struggle is the sorry lot of desperately poor people in faraway places.

This is where a culture of resistance becomes absolutely necessary to success.  Of any kind.

Earlier this year, we described a few examples of these cultures, from author Lierre Keith’s examination of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, to the more than 130 First Nations governments in western Canada that have gathered against the tar-sands Enbridge Northern Gateway Project and the Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker projects. [2]  These examples, and the others we provided, were of desperately poor people, who of course really are up against a wall—their lives are immediately threatened by the activities of rich and powerful entities.  Of course, so is Coyote Canyon.  We just lack the empathy to protect and defend it.  The structural model of a serious culture of resistance, however, can provide us the possibility of overcoming our fear of reprisal, of ridicule, and of failure.  It is probably the last chance we’ll get to assemble effectively against injustices; it’s a strategy that’s been used by movements throughout history, and it can be imitated and put into practice now.  If those who wish to prevent agency actions like the Coyote Canyon trail, or to promote re-localization of food production—any defensive or restorative action—can become an effective force if they work together, consistently and reliably supporting one another.

We are against the wall, too.  We just get to pretend we aren’t because we still get food from supermarket shelves and water from a tap, yet the destruction of the planet, however easy it is to ignore, will catch up with us all.  Unusual events like southeast Utah’s “haboob,” or severe dust storm of this spring [3]; the 2012 drought and record-breaking heat wave; the erosion of topsoil and depletion of biodiversity.  The erosion, too, of our dignity and self-respect.  It’s up to those who can face the true scale of the situation to gather together in determined and strategic-minded organizations, and fight back with everything we have.




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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