When lovers of the Sonoran Desert talk about it, you can almost imagine grandchildren rolling their eyes as old-timers describe the way things used to be. How beautiful the desert was before it became a golf course.
But words describing the land don't come close to the experience of being there. On the north slope of Little Granite Mountain in north Scottsdale, power lines disappear from view and the unique lushness of the upper Sonoran Desert becomes obvious. The orange from the wildflowers is blinding. Stately saguaros stand amid spiny cholla and paloverde trees. It is at once lovely and harsh. More important, it is an escape from the noise, concrete and urban sprawl surrounding it.
Other cities of Phoenix's size -- and poor air quality -- offer culture, nightlife, entertainment and architecture. The Valley has the desert. And everybody wants a piece of it.
With development eating up open space at a rate of about an acre an hour, according to the most recent study by ASU's Morrison Institute for public policy, those who love it have become like animals marking their territory.
The fiercest argument is between those who believe no land is good land until it's paved over, and those who torch development in the name of preserving God's sacred creation. But caught in the crossfire are the people who go to the desert simply to have a good time. Increasingly, bikers, hikers, climbers, horseback riders and others are finding their playgrounds covered in red-tiled roofs.
As they are being squeezed out, the kids are not playing nice with each other. "When you get down to it, there's too many rats in the box," says longtime rock climber Paul Diefenderfer.
Tensions are running high among groups that basically want the same thing -- access. Recreation groups are realizing that if they want access to open land, they're going to have to fight. They are organizing, handing out fliers, giving speeches at Land Department meetings. They are showing their environmental friendliness by doing trail cleanups and maintenance.
And they are pointing fingers, accusing others of leaving more than footprints, taking more than pictures. For many groups, it isn't just about having fun anymore. It's about politics, alliances and constituency building. Some argue it's about discrimination, as users of the land realize that not all recreation was created equal.
The most heated battle now concerns the parcel of State Trust land in North Scottsdale which preservationists want to add to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. This 16,600-acre patch of paradise has become the hottest land issue for every outdoors person and saguaro-hugger in the Valley.
Everybody is drawing a line in the sand.
On any given weekend, hikers, mountain bikers, climbers and equestrians emerge from their suburban garages, urban apartments and gated communities to descend upon the Sonoran Desert.
The parking area near Pima and Dynamite roads is packed. Spandex-clad mountain bikers brush past dirt bikers rolling their machines off of flatbed trucks. Climbers throw ropes over shoulders, trail blazers tie on hiking boots and strap on water packs.
More and more, theirs is becoming a nomadic quest. Recreation groups have been expelled from areas like this for years. In some cases they just move on; in others they try to stay and fight. Climbers and bikers have struggled with the City of Scottsdale to reopen the Pinnacle Peak area since 1995. Dirt bikers have moved north from Squaw Peak, to Shea, to the McDowell Mountain Area.
When the State Land Department announced this year that it would consider the City of Scottsdale's petition to save a 16,600-acre parcel of desert surrounding the McDowell Mountains, preservationists and recreationists mobilized their troops.
Preservationists and homeowners in the area, as they are wont, say it is a place of unique scenic beauty and wildlife habitat that must be saved for future generations. In 1990, citizens of Scottsdale formed the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust (MSLT), a nonprofit organization whose goal is to preserve a 57-square-mile desert open space area. The trust partnered with the City of Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission.
In 1995, Scottsdale voters agreed to tax themselves and visitors a little extra and spend the money buying preserve lands. If the state approves the petition to conserve the trust land, the city will eventually purchase the 16,600 acres with these funds, and add them to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
If the land isn't conserved, it will most likely be developed. By law, State Trust land must be auctioned to the highest bidder. According to the State Land Department, in fiscal year 1999 it sold 1,195 acres for development. In 2000, that number jumped to 4,254 acres. Another 4,700 are marked for sale in 2001.
In February, more than 1,000 people packed a Scottsdale auditorium and spilled out onto the sidewalks for a public hearing on the city's petition to preserve this parcel. Local homeowners sat alongside environmentalists, waving signs that read "Save Our Desert." They squared off with the recreation clubs, which had sent frenzied e-mails encouraging members to speak out at the hearing.
And they did. Cheers, whistles and applause rang out as climbers and hikers spoke of their love for the desert. Green-shirted environmental activists who evoked images of bloody battle and fighting to save the land, met with frequent boos from a large group of red-shirted folks who have come to be known as "recreational terrorists."
The auditorium was packed with off-highway vehicle users dressed all in red -- they say to draw attention to their plight, others say because they're rednecks. OHV users say they're all for saving the land, but not if it means they can't use it. The city's petition makes it clear that once the city has control of the land, OHV use will be banned.
"It's not a park, it's a preserve," says Carla (her legal name), executive director of MSLT. "A park tries to get as many people to enjoy it as possible. In a preserve, the first objective is preservation."
According to Carla, the key to preservation is appropriate access, which includes staying on trails, no trails near environmentally sensitive areas, not letting dogs roam free, and no motorized vehicles.
Preservationists say motorized vehicle use is simply too harmful to the environment. Motorized vehicle users say kicking them off the land is the first step in the systematic removal of all recreation groups, leaving only the flower-petters.
As is, State Trust lands are multi-use, and have been enjoyed by all kinds of rec groups for years. There aren't many rules. Visitors are supposed to have a permit, but with only a couple of enforcement officers for the whole state, there is little incentive to purchase the pass. The land isn't managed -- a fact Carla says will change if and when it becomes part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
"Some people are just focused on the enjoyment they'll see in their lifetimes," she explains. "We're concerned about future generations." Recreational users, she points out, can be just as damaging to the land as developers. "We don't want to save the land only to watch people love it to death," she says.
And Arizona residents do love the outdoors. According to the Arizona State Parks Trails 2000 plan, 77 percent of Arizonans use trails. Of that figure, motorized vehicle users are not insignificant, at 21 percent. Game and Fish Department figures show the state is gaining about 10,000 ATVs a year, and currently there are records for about 70,000.
All this is bad news to Carla. As she drives on a road near the state lands, a red truck with two dirt bikes in the bed pulls up next to Carla's SUV.
"Oh, God, don't let me get into a fight," she half-jokes. OHV users have become a thorn in her side because they have voiced their disapproval of the petition to save this land.
"They have more testosterone than brains," she says.
On a peaceful Sunday in the McDowell Mountains, the solitude is broken only by the buzzing of 25-horsepower machines that rip past every five minutes. Forget whatever damage they cause to soil, wildlife or vegetation. People hate dirt bikes because they are just plain loud.
"If I was out climbing and heard one dirt bike go by, I might think, 'That asshole,'" says climber Paul Diefenderfer, owner of the Phoenix Rock Gym. "But when it's every 20 minutes, I start thinking we should be able to hunt those bastards."
Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts are the redheaded stepchildren of the recreational world. They are at the bottom of the food chain, the first to lose access, and the last to gain sympathy. They are the only group specifically singled out for expulsion in Scottsdale's petition for the trust land, and the U.S. Forest Service has been studying the impact they cause on land.
If they lose access to the Scottsdale trust land, OHV users complain, the closest place for them to ride will be one hour away at Lake Pleasant. Most people are glad to see them go.
"I can't think of anybody but dirt bikers who likes dirt bikers," says Diefenderfer.
Such attacks leave dirt biker Jeff Gursh of the Arizona Trail Riders (ATR) feeling just slightly oppressed. He says "extreme environmentalists" have even gone so far as to put spikes on the trails at dirt biking competitions.
Tom Bickauskas of the ATR feels his brother's pain.
"Removing OHVs from the land is the new ethnic cleansing," he says.
Bickauskas and Gursh fail to see the absurdity in comparing themselves to ethnic Albanians and enslaved African Americans. They are, after all, just part of a group of middle-aged white men who are being told they can't play in the desert anymore, hardly one of history's worst examples of oppression and genocide. But the sense of injustice is genuine.
"It's unfair to consider one group's recreation more important than another's," Bickauskas insists.
When you work a nine-to-fiver that pays the bills and live to recreate on the weekends, this fight isn't just about a hobby. It's about an identity.
Many, like Bickauskas, moved here specifically because the area used to be full of great places to ride. Bickauskas says that he never wanted to be "Mr. Activist," but he has spearheaded the campaign to save access to this land for OHV use.
He has coordinated flier campaigns to get the word out, and contacted the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a legal advocacy group for OHV users best known for filing a lawsuit challenging former president Bill Clinton's designation of vast national monument lands in Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and Washington.
It was at his prodding that OHV users showed up to the public hearing wearing red, hoping their presence would stand out and send a message to the Land Department. "We don't have an agenda -- we're a recreational group," he says. "We don't fight for land, but we're starting to have to."
Bickauskas starts up his dirt bike for a ride on State Trust land near Pima and Dynamite roads. His is the most high-tech, quietest bike on the market, and still it's so loud you have to shout to be heard over it. Riding on it is hard to classify as a nature experience in the truest sense -- it's more like a roller coaster ride through the desert. But Bickauskas claims to be a lover of nature. He comes to a vantage point at the top of a hill, turns off the bike and dismounts.
"Just take a look around," he says. "This is why we come out here."
But others have come out here to live. It isn't just the preservationists who want to regulate access to this land. It's also homeowners in the area who have carved out their piece of desert, and don't want anyone else on it.
Tim Montgomery's home is located about a quarter-mile from the parcel the city wants to preserve. He says he's "not some crazy environmentalist," just a homeowner who wants some peace.
In the past five years, Montgomery says he's seen traffic increase eightfold. In addition to the noise from construction trucks and builders when he sits on his back patio, he has to contend with OHV noise. "Almost always on Sundays it's really peaceful except for the constant whining," he says.
Last Thanksgiving he called the police on three pickups racing through the washes. "I swear they were all drunk -- very noisy and undisciplined."
Montgomery says he would like to see the land use limited to people on foot. He says there is simply a point when enough is enough.
"There's a certain character and quality of life that is evaporating like it's a hot sunny day in July in Arizona," he says. "It's an openness, a sense of nature and untouched beauty."
The untouched beauty is evaporating, along with the view from his back patio. Montgomery has organized along with other homeowners in the area who have the same concerns. "We have gotten together, had meetings and strategized about how we can fight -- and that's the word you have to use -- to ensure this part of the Valley gets preserved," he says.
Bickauskas claims stereotyping all dirt bikers as "a bunch of yahoos" is an unfair tactic, and compares his plight to the most extreme historical tragedy.
"Every cause needs its whipping boy," he says. "Hitler rallied around the Jews. Environmentalists around the dirt bikers."
Playground politics are played out in a sterile, stale conference room during a meeting of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission at Scottsdale's City Hall. Carla will be the "environmental bully," OHV users the skinny kids with glasses. The meeting is hypothetical: The commission is discussing potential rules and regulations should the State Land Department decide to conserve the parcel. The OHV users are hoping the commission will reconsider banning them from the preserve.
"The only way we see we can continue to ride is to become political like the environmentalists," Gursh explains, comparing the conflict to the Israelites versus the Palestinians. "Thirty years ago if you were an environmentalist, you were a kook. Now they have power, and dirt bikers are marginalized."
Ethan Goodrich of Steve Hatch Motorcycle Adventures, who may be the only one with a legitimate discrimination claim, takes a more moderate tone. "Carla only wants to let herself and a few friends in," Goodrich says. "But I can't go to this area unless I have a motorized vehicle. It's a big ADA issue in a roundabout way."
Goodrich has been in a wheelchair since a dirt bike race in the spring of 1992. He hit a tree head-on at 35 miles an hour and exploded a vertebrae. "If I had it to do over, I wouldn't change anything," he says. "Obviously I'd rather not be in a wheelchair, but I wouldn't change it if it meant I would have never ridden."
Carla opens the meeting by reiterating that the purpose tonight is not to revisit the proposed ban on motorized vehicles, prompting eye rolling and audible sighs from Gursh. The purpose of tonight's meeting is to discuss what commercial uses will potentially be allowed in the preserve if the state land is reclassified as suitable for conservation. Of course, Jeep tour operations are one of the user groups. Given the ban on motorized vehicles, it would seem a foregone conclusion that Jeeps would be banned. But alienating the Scottsdale tourism industry is out of the question, a hypocrisy that gives other OHV riders fits.
Another tour operator who stands to lose access to this land is Todd Masden, who runs Cave Creek Outfitters with partner Cheryl Ward. Theirs is a horse tour company located on this State Trust land in North Scottsdale. They have made their living doing tours on this land for the past seven years. Masden is attending the meeting to plead his case for continued access. Rather than striking an alliance with the banned OHV group, Masden points out that they should be blamed for wrecking the land -- not him.
"The people we have the most trouble with besides the shooters are the OHVs," Masden says.
"They scare your horses?" Gursh asks.
"My horses are used to it," Masden replies. "It's not the bikes, it's the people on the bikes."
Gursh argues that there will always be that 2 percent of irresponsible users, and Carla makes the point that those irresponsible users are the reason land management is necessary.
"You don't manage for the responsible people, you manage for the idiots," she says. Later, she states her belief that the idiot population is disproportionately high in the OHV community.
"I bet if you took a survey, you'd find it's more than 2 percent of the dirt bikers," Carla says.
Gursh shifts in his seat, and his voice starts to take on a panicked, defensive tone. He's feeling like a black man again. As he launches into a soliloquy in defense of his people, Carla cuts him off. She reiterates the fact that this meeting is not about revisiting the OHV ban, to which Gursh lets out another heavy sigh and pipes down.
After the meeting Carla and Gursh approach, each armed with their own set of photos of the trust land, with a different version of what each picture means. Gursh's photos show mountain bike marks and horse hooves, claiming they cause just as much damage to the land. Carla has photos of mangled saguaros, whose demise she blames on dirt bikes.
Gursh levels the accusation that Carla wants to turn this land into wilderness, which she denies and states "it's been a long day and I don't need this."
They follow each other into the parking lot, bickering, until Carla finally drives away.
"I'm not a politician, she is," Gursh says as he stomps to his car. "I'm not polished enough at this. My wife would like to see me, too, but I spend all my time doing this. It's supposed to be about recreation."
Motorized off-highway vehicles, whether it's four-by-fours, ATVs or dirt bikes, are the only recreation group that will be explicitly banned from the preserve. The city's petition states it will allow for "passive" recreation activities, which would seem to leave climbers, mountain bikers and equestrians in the clear. However, in an attempt to draw alliances, members of the OHV community have tried to convince other recreation groups that they may be the next to go.
Gursh says he thinks once the city has control of the land, it will kick everyone off, and for this reason it's important to band together.
"None of the user groups have come together. The mountain bikers don't like the dirt bikers. Dirt bikers don't like mountain bikers. Hikers don't like anybody; equestrians squash everybody. If we could get together, imagine what we could do."
Off-highway vehicle users' best chance for an ally is in the commercial outfits that also stand to lose access to the preserve. The city is still deciding whether it will allow people like Todd Masden and Cheryl Ward to continue doing business on the land. Because of this, Masden says he feels a certain sympathy for Gursh's plight.
"We'd rather not see the OHVs out there -- on the other hand, [these] guys are getting pushed around just like we are," he says.
The OHV users might have had a potential ally in Masden, if his territorialism didn't run so deep. "I feel sorry for the dirt bikers, but I don't want them on my trails."
There's the not-in-my-backyard mentality, and then there's the not-on-my-trails mentality.
Masden is dressed in blue jeans, blue button-down work shirt and tan cowboy hat, and a steady stream of cigarettes dangle from his bushy mustache as he rides "his trails." He complained about OHV use to the State Land Department and got it to put up signs restricting use on certain trails. Masden claims the signs were ripped out of the ground, and one was stolen. He blames the dirt bikers.
It's not only the mentality that bothers Masden, he also believes OHV use is more damaging to the land.
"I'm sorry, but the dirt bikes and mountain bikes do more damage than the horses," he states, saying the vegetation regenerates after about two years from horse use.
As the various recreational groups vie for most favored environmental status, they all point fingers at each other.
"The horse is the original OHV," Bickauskas, of the trail riders, says. "You probably compact soil more with a 1,200-pound horse than with a 225-pound dirt bike."
Kevin Lockart, of the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona, claims mountain bikes don't cause much more damage than hikers. He blames the dirt bikes.
"The trails are actually pretty destroyed," he says. "But that's the nature of the power of motorcycles."
Climber Paul Diefenderfer points out that everyone has an impact.
"No one snowflake thinks it's part of the avalanche," he says. "Desert and wild places are being crushed and everyone is part of the problem."
Members of the climbing community don't fear they will lose access to this land if the city takes it over, only that their access may be limited to certain trails. Many climbers see the claim that all groups will eventually be banned as a baseless scare tactic. Still, even the most benign activities don't fly under the environmental radar these days.
On a Sunday in late March, the Arizona Mountaineering Club meets early in a parking area at 118th Street and Rio Verde. Dozens of beginning climbers are out here for an instructional class, and to practice on several climbs on Little Granite Mountain.
Wayne Schroeter, former chairman of the AMC access committee, has been working for years to maintain access to climbing areas like this one. He says climbers have recognized that in order to continue practicing their sport, they have to contend with not only land ownership issues, but environmental concerns.
"I think it's forced on people," he says. "I think every group recognizes if they don't do their part, they won't have access to the land."
Mountaineers and rock climbers have long been a major constituent of conservation organizations like Wilderness Watch and Sierra Club. In spite of this, and the fact that climbers are considered relatively low on the environmental impact scale, they are not escaping scrutiny these days. Environmentalists are concerned about rooftop vegetation and whether the climbers harm it when they reach the top of a climb. Also, the U.S. Forest Service banned the use of metal anchors and bolts in designated wilderness areas. Climbers argue against this, claiming it is dangerous not to replace old anchors that people use while rappelling.
The placement of fixed anchors in the Superstition Mountains was banned in 1990. Old anchors must be replaced periodically in order to safely support a climber's weight. For more than a decade, it has been illegal for the climbing community to replace old anchors in the Superstitions.
Aside from tackling environmental barriers, climbers have had their own access issues. They have been fighting since 1995, along with mountain bikers, to regain access to Pinnacle Peak. Also on the north slope of the McDowells, where the city owns the rock, but developers own the land leading up to it. They lost access to the Boulders in Carefree in the late '80s, and face ongoing closures in Prescott.
When an area closes, it doesn't eliminate the use, it simply moves it somewhere else.
The State Land Department will begin discussion of Scottsdale's application to conserve the crowded state land in May, and hopes to make a decision sometime this year. The department has said it will likely conserve at least a portion of the land, and Scottsdale's intent is to add the land to its preserve and manage it in the same manner.
The city's petition clearly states that its priorities lie with protecting the land -- not ensuring human access. "Conservation is the main goal of the Preserve and recreational opportunities are secondary to conservation," the petition states.
The awkward, clunky machine animals crawl along the canyon bed at an impossibly slow pace. This trail could be walked in about an hour, and could take days at this rate. But this is not about efficiency. This is about the juxtaposition of nature and machine. This is about conquest. This is about mechanically inclined men -- and a couple of women -- who are really, really into their cars.
The Arizona State Association of 4-Wheel-Drive Clubs' annual "show me" trail ride is a sort of PR campaign. Club members take people out from various state agencies, convinced that anyone who experiences the exhilaration of driving a Jeep or Land Cruiser to the back country and crawling it over obscene obstacles will be sold on the off-road world. They aren't going where no man has gone before, just going where you never thought you could in your truck.
They won over Terry Heslin of the State Parks Department. "I used to think these guys were just throttle-twisting boneheads who should be in jail," Heslin says. "Now I realize there's a lot to appreciate in what they do."
Jerry Steele, owner of a 1977 Bronco and trail leader for today's ride, thinks the opposition to OHVs is just misperception.
"Anybody outside what we do has very little concept of what we do and why we do it," Steele says. "So most can't see a problem in closing the land off to us."
The convoy of four-by-fours is working its way through a trail that's rated a 4.5 -- with 5 being the most difficult. As it approaches the crux of the trail ride, a blue Land Cruiser is ready for a challenge. After all, it's not what you bought, it's what you build, and this baby has $22,000 worth of rear axles, gear reduction in the hub, locking differential whatevers, and some really big tires.
The top-heavy vehicle crawls its way around a corner, up a steep, sloping rock. The angle between the vehicle and the ground becomes steeper. The driver cuts the wheel hard, but it's too late and gravity takes over. The heavy machine crashes onto its side, whipping its occupants around into contorted unnatural positions. The vehicle rolls down a ravine, coming to rest on the roof and leaving three passengers dangling from the seat belts.
A rollover wasn't the goal of today's ride, but never to have one is sort of like a career soldier who never gets to see combat. And even as all the fluids from the overturned Land Cruiser empty into a shallow stream, making this the Exxon Valdez of four-by-fours, and even as the occupants of the rollover rub sore necks, this was still the coolest part of the day.
It's not everyone's idea of a good time, but for the off-road enthusiasts, this kind of difficult, back country trail ride is where it's at.
"Most people look at a road and see ugly. I see history, blood and sweat from humans -- the romanticism of man's hand on the environment. I see beauty in a road," explains Steele.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Not everyone here is as eloquently philosophical about the four-by-four experience. Tee shirts and bumper stickers read statements like: "It's a Jeep, you wouldn't understand," or "Get In, Sit Down, Shut Up and Hang On," and "No crying, whining, bitching wimps allowed." Other slogans ask those age-old fundamental questions about humanity like "When Don't Women Have PMS?"
No, for some this is simply the most logical, more powerful extension of themselves. For others, it's about community, family and a passionate form of recreation they feel environmentalists want to steal from them for no good reason.
"In my opinion, Mother Nature has a resilience. Man will change the planet, but I don't think we have the power to destroy it."