In a recent video from onX Offroad, they discuss some of the off-road history and how it relates to efforts to protect the public lands most of it 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. These ideas may be new to some of us, but taking care of nature means doing our best to respect and enjoy it.
He begins the story in California’s Mojave Desert on the East Mojave Heritage Trail. People come to this trail from all over the world to see the land, as did generations of off-roaders before them. An important concept that immediately comes into play is that you can’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 like they do today. As for the Mojave Desert, much of today’s explorer culture can be traced back to Aloha Wanderwell’s circumnavigation of the world in a Ford Model T. While most of us don’t remember her nearly a century later, she showed people that vehicles can be fun and not just getting places, and that some of that fun happens far away from pavement and people.
What was especially interesting about Aloha was that she started her travels when she was only 16 years old! So the rest of us have little excuse not to explore.
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 create vehicles that could reach places they couldn’t before. At that time there were no roads and few trails, so they built a vehicle that could cross the desert just like a horse. Their vehicle, called “Lena”, was custom built 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 uses special vehicles to travel all over Europe and Asia called the GP, but instead of saying “jee pie”, soldiers often mix up the letters and call the vehicles Jeeps. Once the war ended, it was easy to get a surplus four-wheel-drive Jeep and go exploring in it. My grandfather had a jeep that he used to explore the great outdoors after earning a Purple Heart and helping to liberate concentration camps in Europe, and many families have similar stories.
(I have a really, really cool series of articles on converting a replica of his Jeep to run on clean electricity, but you’ll have 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 he was done hiking 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 further. His stories eventually popularized the Mojave Trail for road travel, and people came from all over the world to see it for themselves.
At a time when California’s population was exploding and the U.S. government wanted to declare part of the country wilderness and close it off to anyone who couldn’t handle the rigors of hiking, it became clear that there was a risk that the Mojave Desert could would be lost. to development and intensive use in some areas and to wilderness designation in others. His love of the desert led him to want to protect it for future generations rather than watch it be overrun and fenced off.
Parts of the Mojave Trail were closed in the 1990s, but just a few years ago, an off-roader decided to try again and see if he could get restricted access from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Billy Creech obtained legal access to these roads (existing roads are exempt from wilderness designations) and worked to improve the routes to make them not only passable, but also in compliance with environmental protection laws.
Today, the Mojave Heritage Trail not only attracts visitors from all over the world, but has also attracted a community of people who loved it enough to make it their home. These people are not there to chew up and destroy the place, but they 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 most off-road enthusiasts believe in, and it’s part of the off-road culture: “Maintaining access to public lands requires an unwavering commitment to protecting them. to protect.”
Deserts may seem lifeless, but they really are full of life that moves and changes from day to day and with the seasons. During the North American monsoon season, the parched desert tends to get a lot of water, and with that water, floods. As the climate changes, we are seeing these floods happening more and more, causing problems not only for the animals and plants that live there, but also for people trying to visit responsibly. Roads become faded and impassable, even for jeeps and other vehicles made to get almost anywhere.
The problem with trail washouts is not the washout itself. Looking at all the arroyos (dry creek beds) in American deserts is evidence that leaching is mostly natural. The problem arises when people on trails can’t get past the washout. This often leads people to try to avoid the normal path, leading to a widening of the path and greater degradation of the natural environment. The work of volunteers who maintain trails is therefore essential to limit their impact.
While I know some readers would prefer no one to go into the area at all (for really minimal impact), that’s not a good option either. If people are not allowed to enjoy an area responsibly, they stop caring. I’ve personally felt this way when I’ve seen places closed, not because I don’t care about the wildlife, but because I’m no longer part of the coalition of citizens who support the regulatory effort. Public lands that are not there for the public are no longer public lands.
An opportunity to further improve things
After seeing this, I thought about the ways my family participates. One is that we switch our off-road activities to electric power. While the average off-roader stops to pick up trash and doesn’t break the landscape off established trails, there’s still a lot of room to make off-roading more environmentally friendly.
But electrification alone is not enough. As more people take EVs to explore, we need to ensure that the culture of respect for the land is continued in the newcomers.
Featured Image: A screenshot of the embedded video showing volunteers helping to map subsidence to prevent widening of trails.
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