Save some wild places from machines

This is an archived article that was published on in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Saturday night a week ago, I returned from hiking the length of the Highline Trail in the Uinta wilderness. It was 90 or so miles of unbelievable views, spectacular wildlife, bad food, tough weather and sore feet; it was all I had hoped for.

When I opened the paper Sunday morning, however, I read about the off-road vehicle rally in Salt Lake City ("Thousands ride to the state Capitol to 'Take Back Utah'," Tribune, Aug. 9) and discovered that, as a lover of wilderness, I apparently hated guns, hated people and was just plain un-American. I was a little surprised and, frankly, a little hurt.

I first fell in love with Utah's wild country in the '70s. My father took my brothers and me backpacking into the high country and bumping into the red rocks. We got there in my dad's old Land Cruiser. Dad would tell us stories of our grandfather doing the same thing with him and his brother in the '40s and '50s.

Apparently, back then, the Mirror Lake Highway didn't go all the way through to Evanston and they often had to get out of grandpa's old Ford and roll rocks from the road just to get to the trailhead. And in the '70s, the Moab I remember was a little different, too -- no mountain bike shops, no brew pubs, just a greasy spoon, a Frosty Freeze and a small river-running company or two.

But as I hiked last week, it was clear that one thing that was true in the '40s and the '70s is still true: The state of Utah is blessed with more beautiful wild country than most places in the world, and there is a time to park the Land Cruiser, Hummer, amphibious hovercraft, dirt bike or whatever else, and get on a horse or on your feet.

From the rally at the Capitol last weekend, you might believe not just that lovers of wilderness generally hate people and their country, but that off-road-vehicle users are a threatened species. Yet a little poking around on the Internet reveals a very different story.

Since 1979, the number of registered ORVs in Utah has grown by a factor of 13, from 9,000 to 120,000. Furthermore, ORVs have access to the vast majority of Utah's public land. Utah is 54 million acres big. Of that number, 23 million acres are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and more than 9 million by the Forest Service.

Yet Utah, with its roughly 32 million acres of public land, has only 797,120 acres of designated wilderness. That's roughly 2 percent of the public land and roughly 1 percent of the state as a whole. Furthermore, according to a 1999 survey of possible Utah wilderness, there are 5.8 million acres of Utah public land that would qualify. Even if that whole amount were designated wilderness -- a near political impossibility -- that would still only make up 18 percent of Utah public land, leaving the remaining 82 percent open to other uses, including ORV use.

As a lover of wilderness, I have no problem with there being a wide array of places for folks to participate in a wide array of activities. But what I don't understand is that last weekend's rally makes it seem that the ORV lobby wants every place to be open to them. They also seem to be arguing that to love wilderness and not to love four-wheelers is just downright un-American.

When I was in the Uintas last week, I saw families, Scout troops, church groups and cowboys with pack strings. They looked like normal folks. I have a hard time believing that if I went through their gear I would find a copy of Mein Kampf or the Communist Manifesto . I doubt I would even find a bottle of chardonnay. I bet they were pretty average Americans, mostly God-fearing, family-loving folks. I even bet some of them owned guns.

I would also wager that, to a person, they would object if they had to share those trails with dirt bikes and four-wheelers. Imagine one of the pack strings I saw having to calm their horses as someone screamed by in full motocross gear.

So let's have places for ORVs, but let's also have wilderness. Let's also remember that once a road or trail is built, it's difficult to get the wilderness back. There is a place for motors, but we also need to know when to shut down, get out and walk.

David Sumner is a fifth-generation Utahn, taught English at Weber State University and now is an associate professor of English and environmental studies at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore.