Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

It Takes Minutes to Trash the Desert, but Centuries to Repair

And you've taken such good care of it. | Photo: Chris Clarke

It's probably best that this piece of land go unidentified here, so let's just say it's a square mile of the Mojave Desert in California. Owned by a foreclosing bank, it's an undeveloped link between a National Park and a broad swath of open desert -- an important wildlife corridor in this rapidly suburbanizing part of the desert. Coyotes live here, and jackrabbits, and ladderbacked woodpeckers, and plants so ancient as to defy belief. On an upland part of an alluvial fan, the land has hundred-mile views.

And there are some who look at this square mile of land and see only a blank spot where they can do things they shouldn't. As it turns out, you don't need a bunch of venture capital investment to trash the desert. All you need is some wheels and a stunted set of ethics.

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A small sign warning against a huge problem. | Photo: Chris Clarke

A square mile of undeveloped desert is hard enough to police, and if that square mile is in an unincorporated part of a large, cash-strapped county that's even more true. Add a few informal roads through the parcel and you have a perfect recipe for illegal dumping. A dumper need merely wait for dark, pull a few hundred yards off the pavement, and unload.

This land has clearly been used for illegal dumping for decades. Walk along the main illegal roads and you walk between rows of large piles of debris, ten yards on either side. Some of the piles are large enough to be seen in Google Maps' satellite view, and were obviously brought in by dumptruck.

A dumptruck-load of construction debris. | Photo: Chris Clarke

Walk these roads, stopping every so often to dump the sand from your shoes, and you will walk past piles of construction debris: concrete and wall board and metal reinforcing mesh. You will walk past piles of garden waste, tree trimmings and old stems of tomato and chrysanthemum mummified in the arid heat, shot through with plastic bags and broken plant pots. You will walk past household appliances and furniture someone found too expensive to discard legally.

Photo: Chris Clarke

You will walk past unspeakably vile places where -- if this were a television detective show -- a hazmat-suited technician would take a sample from the five-foot pile of waste, send it to the lab for analysis, and within two hours have the address of the dog breeder from whose kennels the waste originated. This is not television, so the waste merely leaks distemper viruses into the earth not a hundred yards from an old kit fox burrow.

There are good people who care about this land, but you would be forgiven, if you wandered along these roads, for concluding otherwise. There's just so much trash and vileness, accumulated over so many years, that the place looks abandoned. And so, predictably, the illegal offroaders have moved in.

Off-road vehicle enthusiasts and environmental activists have a decades-long history of conflict, but the majority of off-roaders might well find this place as appallingly ill-treated as I do. Many off-roaders stick to established trails, conduct trash cleanup campaigns, and try not to recreate on private land without permission. Here, on land where the owner is a bank hundreds of miles away and unlikely to grant permission to off-roaders, tire tracks leave the roads and head through broken vegetation to dirt tracks they've carved into the landscape.

Illegal dirt bike racetrack | Photo: Chris Clarke

If these dirt-bikers whose scrawled graffiti claims defiantly that this desert belongs to them as much as to the treehuggers have ever sponsored a trash cleanup here, it does not show.

Just one of dozens of similar trash drifts | Photo: Chris Clarke

If you are of the treehugger camp, you might not view that claim of co-ownership with much sympathy. You might, instead, have Shakespeare's lines from Julius Caesar come to mind, the lines old Bill had Antony speak after Caesar's death in Act 3:

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!

Three miles from a National Park, and this land holds enough trash to fill a fleet of dumpsters, with the tracks of knobbly tires threaded through the piles. It is a depressing prospect. Were one of those representatives of Washington, D.C.-based wilderness groups to visit the site, he or she might well decide that this would be a perfect place to bulldoze for a few more megawatts of solar power, because clearly, the place is lost.

But it's not lost.

People are lazy. Given a choice between hauling trash a hundred yards from the road by hand or just dumping it at the roadside, no one would choose the former option --especially people whose laziness extends as far as their conscience. Given a choice between blazing a quarter-mile of new illegal trail through open desert or staying within sight of the beer, most illegal offroaders will choose the brews.

Though this is indeed a "bleeding piece of earth," the injury is mainly limited to the roadsides. Head a hundred yards away from those tire-torn gashes in the landscape and the desert is still there. Mated pairs of jackrabbits still bound away from you through the cacti. Desert washes devoid of all but wind-blown trash still braid their way through the landscape. Creosote bushes of unbelievable age dot the landscape where they've lived for centuries -- where some of them have lived for millennia.

1,500-year-old creosote | Photo: Chris Clarke

Coyotes still slink across the washes a hundred yards ahead of you, and cactus wrens still scold you from the tops of hundred-year-old Joshua trees in whose trunks woodpeckers still hammer holes. Packrats still build middens, still eat Joshua tree leaves like corn off a cob. Even along the tortured dirt roads a few centuries-old cacti have managed to defend themselves from the yahoos.

Nine-foot-tall pencil cactus | Photo: Chris Clarke

We claim to prize ambition as a society, to loathe laziness. This square mile of desert suggests the opposite. Were the dumpers and dirtbikers more ambitious this land might truly be a landfill. As it is, if we just stop hurting it it might recover in only a few short centuries.

The creosotes can easily wait that long, if we let them.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.


Shifting Sands: Cape May's Warning


The Desert, With its Life Underground

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Mr. Clarke,

Actually it does not have to take centuries for the desert to recover. We, the OHV crowd, have recently taken an area such as this and created something that is one of the premiere desitinations in the country.

In fact, this area was recently selcted as one of the success stories in the Western Governer's Association Recreation Assets study.

This area, to use the BLM's words, "went from ground zero for resource destruction" an recreation area to be proud of.

California had the money to do this thanks to the OHV sticker program there. But unfortunately, the CA government has repeatedly stripped money form this fund to make up for budget shortfalls.

You really should get to know some of the OHV world and you will find that we care as much, if not more, about the desert as any environmentalist.


Thanks for commenting, Mad Machinist. I know that many OHV users do indeed care about and appreciate the desert, and that they obey laws, help clean up trash, and are all around the kind of people you'd want to have a beer with. So I'm not surprised to hear of good works like the one you describe.

However, though you folks may have done a great job of cleaning up trash, closing illegal trails, and restoring the site, that's not the same thing as the desert recovering. Damage to things like cryptobiotic soil crusts and desert pavement, not to mention the centuries-old plants I mention above, just simply cannot be repaired by a group of people in a short time, no matter how well-intentioned and hard-working they are. It does indeed take decades, if not centuries, of protection and careful management for those important aspects of the ecosystem to recover from damage.


Dear MadMachinist,

Are you Dan O'Brien of Mustard's Last Stand in Joshua Tree, or Ken Piel, of Mission Viejo? Are both of you still part of the same scofflaw ORV organization that has terrorized, harassed and bullied anyone who opposed your self-interests? The same ORV organization that uses the internet to hate monger against opponents, outing purported gays and Jews? The same organization whose 1950's-era mindset tries to usurp patriotism to itself, accusing any inconvenient opponents of being - gasp! - communists, Joe McCarthy-style? The same organization that allegedly vandalized political opponents' homes, and legally harassed other low-income opponents by hiring lawyers to spy on them and tattle to county agencies about any residential codes they might violate?

Did you know that the local community banded together against you, to help the people you so viciously attacked? They banded together to raise funds for building supplies, and held work-parties to fix your victims' properties. I bet you didn't know that, since they didn't report it to the media. Your victims are still to frightened to speak out, lest you attack and terrorize them again.

Your ORV organization shelters and promotes hate mongers and terrorists - all to divert attention from the scofflaws among you who you yourselves refuse to stop.

Your actions made the community rally against you, because you proved yourselves to be overaged bullies and cowards - hiding behind anonymity to say or do your worst. Nobody likes a bully - that's why bullies like you are losers. Your ORV org has become a gang of thugs.

If you're so proud of yourself, why don't you post in your own name, Dan, or is it Ken?


Please note: Mustard's Last Stand is a mobile hot dog stand based out of 29 Palms, not Joshua Tree. (As per residents of Joshua Tree, who asked me to make that correction.)


Thanks, KCET for the free advertising. Your story has gone viral in the OHV Community. While I reserve the right to not agree, I appreciate the shout out by your website.

Try our website, Http:// for a slightly different perspective on the Desert and its politics.

While Mr. Clarke preaches here to the choir as it were, and his facts are just a tad off the mark, his obvious opinion piece, was well written. I suggest he needs to balance his article next time, if he is going to claim it a fair report of the issue.

Dan O'Brien
29 Palms.

PS Hey! JTukeva!! I guess you'll be wanting a free meal for the shout out right?


For the record, I am not in the habit of identifying commenters on this or any other site who post under pseudonyms, but I can tell you that MadMachinist is not either of the above-mentioned California OHV enthusiasts.


I am amused at the one sided articals written by the LA crowd. For those of us who are life long desert dwellers and off roaders this is tiring. Mr.Clarke, is this the best you can do? just another typical enviro wack job artical, which feeds the nut cases like JTukeva. Stay in LA and breath deep, enjoy the smog and crowds, spare me the stupity of your aganda.


Mr. Clarke, maybe you should have broken your story down into the two different ones that it is. Being an avid off-roader/OHVer I can tell you that we DO NOT shit where we sleep. The vast majority of off-roaders who live in the desert or nearby areas ALWAYS leave the desert/campgrounds/BLM property cleaner than what we found it. There is a problem with the city folk who go to the dunes or BLM areas just to party and raise hell and trash the place because "it's just a desert" and then go back to their city life. Those of use who recreate in the desert because of it's offering of outstanding family time and camaraderie with friends always clean up after ourselves and those less concerned with the environment.

Looking through all of your pictures and reading your descriptions I find it difficult to believe that you really think that dump trucks full of construction debris and dung, along with refridgerators, mattresses and box springs, and all of that other garbage, was hauled out there on ATV's, dirtbikes, and OHV's. Surely an intelligent writer understands better. So let's please keep the two seperate isssues seperate.

Not sure if the site of which you speak is in Riverside or San Bernardino county but if it is BLM land outside of Riverside county then the track which you show while being maybe irresponsible, would not be illegal. If it's on private land and done without permission then I'm all onboard with your concern.

Not kicking sand in anyones face but I will say that here in California I have seen way more trash (water bottles, Granola bar wrappers, etc.) while hiking along the many trails offered up for our enjoyment in or local mountains and surrounding desert areas than I have at any designated OHV areas. So who are the real environmentalists?

Illegal dumping sucks for all of us. If we are off-roading legally then let us enjoy our time and may you enjoy to the fullest whatever hobbies it is that enjoy. Hopefully nobody tries to associate you and your friends recreational activities with some travesty totally unrelated to your activities.


Unfortunately there is no "easy" answer for much of this. I live in Mojave and know many responsible ORVers. They and their families enjoy the desert. However I also know that those same responsible people do not always know what their tennagers do when a group of them gets together. Peer presure generates a lot of stupidity. Desert dumping seems almost like a way of life for some and they are very hard to catch. Articles like this by Chris Clarke help to increase awareness and may just cause someone to report dumping the next time they see it happening. Based on the comments I see, I would say that it has served it's purpose well. I did not read this as a piece directed at any specific group. Chris Clarke acknowledges the good done by groups and individuals. This piece simply and clearly points out that if left totally unchecked the desert would not be a welcome place for any of us. That it has generated a discussion is always a good thing. If this article causes even one more person to be more aware of what they are doing, or one more person to help when an ORV organization goes out to clean up, then it's a great thing.


While I may have some disagreements with the ORV crowd, it is self defeating to hold them at fault. Few drive dump trucks. Most likely these are the actions of one are more of the illegal contractors that infest the area. With all the foreclosures being bought up by investors from the city, hiring whomever off of Craigslist at rock bottom prices to do the cleanups, we're going to get a lot more of this. Blaming ORV'ers is only going to reflect the blame, doing more possible damage than good.