Monday, August 16, 2010

OHV Races and the Mojave Desert

It was a very unfortunate day for Mojave Desert Racing and Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) recreationists with this weekend's tragic accident in the Johnson Valley OHV area.  As much as I prefer my pristine desert wilderness, I understand that off-road vehicle enthusiasts ultimately share a love for the open space and freedom afforded by the Mojave. 

The media tends to paint OHV enthusiasts as the arch nemesis of environmentalists (and vice versa),  but there is middle ground, and hopefully that will not be ignored during the coverage of this tragedy.  It is true that OHV recreation is incompatible with conservation.  It is a fact that OHVs damage desert lands and harm endangered wildlife.  But if enjoyed responsibly, OHV enthusiasts can have their share of the desert, and leave the rest for everyone to enjoy in its natural state.  OHV recreation is a sport that--in my opinion--has not fully matured, but neither has our management of the deserts.

Some organizations may seek to take advantage of the incident to drive the sport backward, but it is my hope that instead this will be an impetus for positive change in the sport -- to make for safer events in controlled spaces where the sport can thrive.   OHV Recreation areas like the Johnson Valley serve as areas where OHV enthusiasts can practice their sport in a designated area where the environmental damage can be contained.  Shutting down these areas, or limiting access would be a policy mistake that disperses OHV usage elsewhere where it can do more damage to our country's resources.

What's needed is better management by the race organizers and more resources for local and Federal agencies, to include the Bureau of Land Management.

Mojave Desert Racing and other Race Organizers:  The organizations that promote and schedule these races charge entry fees for the competitors, who in-turn spend thousands of dollars on their vehicle and maintenance.  Spectators travel from far away and haul beverages and food to Johnson Valley and other OHV areas, likewise spending the equivalent of a mini-vacation budget.    The organizers could increase fees for competitors or charge a token entry fee for spectators that could fund law enforcement or crowd control staff. 

Local and State Agencies:  The State could levy an increase in the registration fee for OHVs and pdedicate the proceeds toward resource officers for large OHV events, that would also serve year-round to educate OHV riders and enthusiasts about safety and rider responsibilities.  Law enforcement and rescue personnel in Lucerne Valley probably shifted a lot of resources to respond to the tragedy, and would probably have to do the same for future races, which impedes their ability to respond to other events and cover their normal duties.  San Bernardino County could impose additional fines on OHV riders violating laws (trespassing, traffic violations, etc), and dedicate the collected fines toward the costs of resources dedicated for large events. 

Federal Government:  It's well known that the BLM and its law enforcement arm in the California deserts are underfunded and under-staffed, especially considering that he California deserts cover thousands of square miles.  The Federal government should authorize additional resource for the California deserts.  The Mojave Desert and its southern cousin, the Colorado Desert, draw millions of visitors each year for hiking, camping, road trips, OHV activities, etc.  This generates millions of dollars in economic activity.   Our policymakers need to come to terms with this imbalance between how much we (the public) take advantage of the deserts, and how capable the Bureau of Land Management is of taking care of our natural resources and the public that is using them.  A more appropriate funding level could lead to better management, which would increase our capacity to enjoy the deserts, leading to even more economic activity.

I do not want to see OHVs barreling through protected wilderness areas, but I do not want to see Johnson Valley closed down, either.   We can all enjoy the desert safely, but we need to recognize that we're not doing enough to manage the competing demands being placed on the desert.

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