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Overland Expo Founder Speaks Out for Greater Land Protections

Respected overlander, hunter, and 4x4 enthusiast Jonathan Hanson makes the case for more protected wilderness, not less.

Jonathan Hanson during a review of the new Ineos Grenadier(Photo/Jonathan Hanson)
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Recently, I decided to count the four-wheel-drive vehicles I’ve owned over the last 45 years. The total came to 13, beginning with a 1973 FJ40 Land Cruiser (which I still have) and continuing on through other Toyotas, several Land Rovers, and a Ford or two.

I’ve used those vehicles to explore, hunt, and fish on BLM, National Forest, and National Park lands, from smooth dirt roads to Class 7 trails. I write about and teach four-wheel-drive technique and recovery. My wife, Roseann, and I created and ran the Overland Expo for 10 years.

Jonathan Hanson in a full-page New York Times advertisement
Jonathan Hanson in a full-page New York Times advertisement.

I also make a monthly donation to the Wilderness Society. I’ve published articles and written my congressional representatives urging the designation of more wilderness areas in the U.S. I also appeared in a full-page ad promoting wilderness that was featured in the New York Times and other national newspapers. Many fellow 4×4 enthusiasts find this dichotomy incomprehensible.

traversing the Continental Divide
Traversing the Continental Divide by 4WD; (photo/Jonathan Hanson)

The Anti-Access Crowd

After all, magazines devoted to four-wheel-drive recreation frequently run strident op-eds decrying the “land grab” that wilderness areas supposedly represent. Land that is “locked away for the use of an elite few.”

Does designated wilderness in the U.S. really threaten our freedom to explore in our four-wheel-drive vehicles? The answer is, not even close. Nor does it pose a threat to it in the future.

Let’s set aside alarmism and look at facts.

Jonathan Hanson camping out of his FJ40 in camp on Mount Graham in southern Arizona
Jonathan Hanson camping out of his FJ40 in camp on Mount Graham in southern Arizona; (photo/Jonathan Hanson)

Context to the Numbers

There are currently 111.9 million acres of federally protected wilderness in the United States. Of that, more than half — 57 million — is in Alaska.

That leaves about 54.5 million acres of wilderness in the lower 48. It sounds like an enormous amount of “locked up” land — unless you know that the lower 48 states comprise 1.9 billion acres. The truth is, less than 3% of all the land in the lower 48 states is permanently protected against logging, mining, and road building. Add Alaska and the total is still less than 5%.

Even if every one of the roughly 12 million additional acres of land currently being studied as potential wilderness is designated so — a virtual impossibility — it would add less than a percentage point to the existing total.

Jonathan, who co-authored a field guide to reptiles and amphibians, demonstrates the safe way researchers handle venomous snakes such as this western diamondback rattlesnake
Jonathan, who co-authored a field guide to reptiles and amphibians, demonstrates the safe way researchers handle venomous snakes such as this western diamondback rattlesnake; (photo/Jonathan Hanson)

Recreational Secondary to Habitat & Wildlife

My support for more wilderness is shared by a significant majority of the American people, according to survey after survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service as well as independent organizations.

Why? Because that majority understands the laudable and unselfish concept behind the Wilderness Act. Its basis is to preserve areas where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

To put it succinctly, in wilderness areas our own recreational convenience is considered secondary to the welfare of the habitat and the wildlife. That’s a concept in which we should take exceptional pride.

Easier Wilderness Access Than You Think

There’s a widespread misconception that to enjoy a wilderness area, you have to hike in 10 miles carrying a backpack. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve enjoyed hundreds of day hikes into the fringes of wilderness areas, content that in front of me is an unspoiled landscape. There are hundreds of wilderness areas I will never visit, but I’m grateful they are there.

I’m also aware that wilderness areas have been proven to be vital refuges for both animals and plants. It should come as no surprise that wildlife does better in habitats not crisscrossed by roads and scarred by mines.

Incidentally, contrary to another misconception, wheelchairs — even some motorized models — are welcome in wilderness areas.

Tacoma and Four Wheel Camper on the rim of Marble Canyon
Camping on the rim of Marble Canyon in a Tacoma with four-wheel camper; (photo/Jonathan Hanson)

Motorized Exploration

Given the recent surge in sales of not just 4×4 trucks and SUVs, but also all-terrain vehicles and side-by-sides — many of them ridden or driven by owners with zero training, awareness, or care — protection of roadless areas is more critical now than it ever has been.

I am a hunter — my wife and I try to eat as much wild game as possible — and in recent years I have had more and more stalks ruined by “hunters” on ATVs and UTVs riding where they are not allowed. Anyone who explores backcountry trails these days knows the problems of abuse and litter are only increasing.

traversing the Continental Divide
(Photo/Jonathan Hanson)

More Protected Wilderness, Please

I’m aware of the fact that there are those on the lunatic fringe of the environmental movement who would ban all 4×4 use. Just as there are those on the lunatic fringe of the 4×4 crowd who don’t believe wilderness areas should exist at all, who would blaze trails into every one if they thought they could get away with it — I’ve seen the results.

It’s up to us, the majority of intelligent people, to come together in the big gray area in the middle. There’s just one thing to remember: Once a wilderness is gone — once a road is bladed through, a mine blasted out, or trees clear-cut — it is gone forever. I’d like to hang on to what we have.

And yes, I’d be happy if we had more.

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