Thursday, 10 May 2018 10:05

Stuck in the mud: the OHV debate

Written by  Lorne Fitch, Professional Biologist
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As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot, by just watching.” Listening to Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) users reveals much about the attitudes and beliefs of the group. These are some notable conclusions from my observations:

OHV users seem actually to believe they can convince others that they can be trusted as stewards of the land by criss-crossing it with spinning tires; denying the scientific evidence of OHV impacts, absolving themselves of blame; advancing their interests over those of other users, inventing distortions and “fake” news; and, answering differing opinions with slurs, threats and intimidation. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the OHV community is at war with reasonable and rational citizenship.
OHV users seem to have a loose relationship with facts, including false beliefs about generally accepted science and a propensity to use misinformation to further cloud the issues. Their opinions seem not to change, even after falsehoods are corrected. The question is why.
Finding facts, pursuing evidence, keeping an open mind and trusting science is part of my background. Science keeps us alive, makes life easier, entertains us and helps with problem solving. Science isn’t perfect, but it sure beats ignorance. It isn’t clear to me how ignoring it advances anyone’s cause.
Denying science findings about the effects of OHV use on fish, wildlife and water quality is exactly the same as suggesting the sun rotates around the Earth or the Earth is flat. In letters and comments OHV users keep denying that wildlife is impacted by their activity. Yet, a recent summary of 700 research papers clearly shows the impacts. Would 50 or 100 more research studies convince disbelievers?
Similarly, OHV users contend fish aren’t harmed by sediment created by erosion from their vehicles. Over 50 years of careful research indicates that fish are impacted in profoundly negative ways by sediment. It is doubtful another 50 years of research would demonstrate any different conclusion.
OHV users respond to science evidence like the early English tourist to Africa, on seeing a giraffe for the first time: “I see it, but I still do not believe it.” Many choose to deny the science on OHV impacts, deny the relevance of that science to management actions and simply vilify those who report on the science.
No one can boast of good stewardship who chooses not to understand and accept the evidence of ecological science. Knowledge provides the map to navigate to an appropriate destination. Its absence has a lot to do with all the mudholes out there.
A recurring comment from OHV users is that they care about the environment. If OHV users will not accept scientific evidence, how can they assert an honest care for a shared environment? The tragedy of the effects of OHV use on wildlife is not found in the facts of the situation, but in the failure of the OHV community to respond to the facts, except with dismissal.
What the OHV community says is they want to be good, responsible stewards of the land. Their words betray a different motive: to perpetuate their recreational activity regardless of the cost to land, other users or society as a whole.
Another disturbing bit of OHV propaganda is that putting some restrictions on unbridled OHV use isn’t really about protecting Alberta’s watersheds, fish and wildlife and restoring the chance for quiet recreationalists to enjoy public land. Instead, it’s described as social engineering: a denial of basic human rights and freedoms and the end of all public use. The OHV users blame a cabal of left-wing extremist environmental groups funded from secret U.S. sources – so secret, apparently, that they don’t show up on the financial reports environmental groups regularly submit to Revenue Canada and make available for public review. This is a remarkable effort to replace reasoned debate with a muddy brew of conspiracy theory, right-wing populism and anti-government invective.
Mark Twain is reported as saying, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” And, a lie, no matter how many times it is repeated, is just that, a lie.
Some in the OHV group even resort to childhood tactics like name calling, trying to hide the weakness of their position by demeaning others. Grown-ups don’t do this. It destroys any chance of coherence, civility and co-operation.
One final observation. The anarchy, lawlessness and destruction that was motorized recreation is coming to an end. Albertans are fed up with it. Yet, letters to the editor in many Alberta newspapers and virulent Facebook rants suggest that the OHV community has chosen rage over reason. If these people and their organizations are the best spokespeople available for OHV use, they are not just a threat to our public lands, they are showing themselves to be their own worst enemy.
Lorne Fitch is a professional biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an adjunct professor with the University of Calgary.

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