The Nation's Pulse

The Eternal Quest

Check out the wilderness trash operations of the Bureau of Landfill Management.

By 6.29.11

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I was recently out hiking on what I call "The Bureau of Landfill Management" and came home with a grocery bag full of beer and soda pop cans. That's the limit I can stuff in my day pack. I could have retrieved more. Hiking friends perform the same chore. We always ignore paper and fast food trash. Paper will eventually degrade and go away. This is an eccentric hobby; the trash collection, that is. The detritus comes from folks driving pickups and "All Terrain Vehicles" (ATVs).

The public lands in the West are remote, yet accessible. The 192 million acres maintained by the United States Forest Service (USFS) are honeycombed with dirt roads, the result of a century of timber harvest and public works projects. The total mileage length of these roads is 375,000, or roughly eight times that of the Interstate Highway System. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has 40,000 miles of "maintained" roads (there's much more), mostly the result of cattle ranching and energy development. Road building in the West -- like bridge and dam building -- has always been something of a fetish, public policy as an uncontrollable urge. Generations of Western politicians have made their careers with these huge projects.

Wherever one happens to be on a backcountry dirt road in the Northern Rockies, one is never so remote as to be more than forty miles from a paved road, therefore a link to civilization. National Parks such as Yellowstone, while projecting wilderness attributes, are covered with paved roads. The only "unroaded" places in the public domain are designated wilderness areas, the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, for examples.

In the last twenty years ATVs have become popular. These four wheelers with heavy-duty tires are designed for rough terrain, and therefore easily driven over bumpy dirt roads and off them, the latter often resulting in impromptu-made trails and thus ruts and erosion. For instance, there have been problems in Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains with the trashing of their high elevation wetlands home to migratory waterfowl. And desert terrain in the Southwest near large cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix is popular with the ATV crowd, with the aforementioned negative results.

Beyond the littering and the ruts, a tiny percentage of ATVers enjoy chasing wildlife, such as deer and elk. These ungulates need to conserve body fat, especially in the autumn and winter months, and any such stress results in increasing the odds that they won't survive a hard winter. It takes a real idiot to try to run down a deer with an ATV.

We hear much in the media about the so-called national obesity epidemic, where a large percentage of Americans are considered overweight, and this is apparent to most of us. The problem seems to be that many people have simply abandoned walking. I have a friend in Wyoming who once jokingly told me that when he travels his feet "don't touch the ground," meaning that he's either driving his truck or riding his horse. Once while out with fellow hiking enthusiasts miles up a mountain road we encountered some ATVers who inquired: "Did you walk all the way up here?" To their amazement, the answer was yes.

The folks driving these toys are a mostly law-abiding group. But a minority are responsible for the trash problems and other outrages when they go "off road." There are calls from environmentalists to ban ATVs from the public lands, and complaints from ATVers that federal land managers are working toward that end. The same goes for snowmobiles, the wintertime version of the ATV, though snowmobiles are mostly reviled for noise and sooty exhaust, the result of their two-stroke engines. Yellowstone National Park has for years been mired in controversy over its winter policy on snowmobiles, which changes with the coming and going of successive administrations in Washington.

To their credit, national organizations including the BlueRibbon Coalition work hard to promote responsible motorized recreation on the public lands. But if ATVers ever lose their access to these lands, it will be because the general public tires of the garbage and the ruts and the gratuitous harassment of wildlife. In other words, they can blame themselves. In the meantime, along with other people I bring home the trash.

So, I wander along without hope or despair while picking up those aluminum gems shining in the sun. They're always there. 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.