On ATVs: What Would Aldo Leopold Do? | Broadsides

On ATVs: What Would Aldo Leopold Do?

SteamMillFallThe Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and a department within it, Fish & Wildlife, have recently proposed to allow riders of all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) access to trails that are on the state’s wildlife management areas, lands that have strict development restrictions and are supposed to be managed with wildness as the guide. The Agency has turned down similar requests in the past. But the ATV lobby keeps coming back, and it’s widely believed that they’re going to get the access they want this time.

In the great spirit of Senor Quixote, I rose to the occasion when ANR invited the public to provide commentary on its proposed rule. Today, I submitted the following comment to them:

I hike daily in a Walden section of the Steam Mill Brook Wildlife Management Area. It is a stunning testament to the possibilities in honoring and protecting our coveted wilderness. On a recent hike, I stopped to read your agency’s literature at the trailhead atop Rock Road. It was inspiring to read about the important work being done within these WMAs, and I was thrilled to see the “No ATVs” signs you have prominently posted.

I was also very pleased to see your tribute to Aldo Leopold and his land ethic, particularly your rightful declaration that his writings have “inspired the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.” You write and post this at the trailhead: “A land ethic expands the way we view the land by including aesthetics and ethical considerations in land use decisions.”

Yes! I would only add this from Thoreau: “The most alive is the wildest.”

Now stop and consider what you’re asking the public to comment on: A proposed rule to allow ATVs to drive onto and over these sacred places. Frankly, given your proclaimed adherence to Leopold’s land ethic, it’s a bit shocking that you’re even asking the question. Where, exactly, does a loud, exhaust-spewing, fast, and planet-threatening parade of ATVs fit into such a land ethic? It doesn’t, especially when “aesthetics and ethical considerations” are included.

Again, back to your trailhead welcome note, where you state a clear goal with your wildlife management areas: “They are managed for the purposes of conserving and improving habitat for Vermont’s native plants and animals and providing opportunities for the public to ‘renew contacts with wild things’ through regulated and ethical hunting, fishing, trapping, birdwatching, hiking, and other wildlife based activities.”

Again: Yes!

Once again, however, my elation with your sentiment becomes perplexed by the reality of your proposed rule. Allowing ATVs on any land is not a question about whether or not the land will be damaged. It will be. The debate is about how much damage the ATVs will do and then trying to manage that damage, from erosion, compaction, noise, road kills, etc. This is in direct contradiction to your management goal of “conserving and improving” this land because ATVs provide neither in their inherently destructive tendencies.

Similarly, the use of ATVs can do little by way of your stated goal of renewing contacts with wild things, unless, of course, you’re referring to the contact being made between the wild things and the grills and wheels of the ATVs. These vehicles, with their speed and noise, terrorize wildlife and those of us trying to partake naturally – on foot! – within these protected places.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture and in a time when taming, conquering and even obliterating our wild places is the norm. It is seen as progress in a most myopic sense, one that is at near-complete odds with forest ecology and a Leopoldian land ethic.

Instead of allowing ATVs to rip and ride on our protected wildlands, I’d like to see your agency advocate for a speed limit that is respectful of — and in rhythm with — nature’s pace. That would mean walking, not riding; and hiking, not throttling; running, not racing. We should advocate being in the wild with an ethic rooted in reverence and lightness, all within nature’s speed limits. We should be good guests of the wild places, by observing, listening, and adjusting ourselves to its speed rather than using it as a speed bump.

Your agency and its leaders have given great lip service to being concerned about global warming. But talk is cheap. What the public needs – especially from natural resource agencies – is meaningful action. Advocating for and/or enabling recreational burning of fossil fuels for pure entertainment is exactly what the ANR should NOT be doing.

If you believe as you say — a belief I share — that global warming is real and, therefore, real action is needed to combat it, that our natural resources need strong advocates, and that a land ethic should be fostered and promoted based on the beauty, joy and mysteries of our most natural places, then you should know just how antithetical combustion-engine recreation is to those objectives.

Let me remind you: You are the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish & Wildlife. Your constituents are the wild things and the wild places. You are their most powerful advocates in the state. Please take it seriously by making our natural resources and our fish and wildlife your utmost priority. You are not the Agency of Fossil Fuel Consumption or the Department of Motorized Recreation. Please act accordingly.

There is talk among proponents of this new rule that they are only asking for “short connector trails.” But size doesn’t matter, the precedent does. And those of us who want to see our wildlands remain wild fear that this will only be the first step toward asking for more and more ATV access in the future. ANR’s current – and clear – ban on ATVs within WMAs remains the best and most easily enforceable rule.

While these proposed connector trails may, indeed, be short, the future ramifications will be far and wide. The sound from the ATVs will be heard for great distances, a sound made louder by the recent trend in the recreational ATV world to modify the engines to increase power and noise. And it will give a nod of acceptance for an activity that should be discouraged in a time of climate change and an urgent need for a real reconnection with the wilderness.

This should be a no-brainer. Just ask yourselves this: What would Aldo Leopold do? And then do the obvious with a deep and satisfying nod to his true land ethic: Continue to ban ATVs from Vermont’s wildlands.