Environmental Stewardship and the Overlander – A look at conservation, preservation, and responsible land use

There are a lot of misconceptions out there when the topic of the environment comes up. Discussions usually degenerate into an “us” (the 4×4 community at large) verses “them” (those tree hugger types) argument. The use, misuse, and abuse of public lands ruffles feathers on both sides. I’m not here to get preachy. To be honest in these kinds of “debates” I usually end up getting shot at by both sides. However, coming from a background in outdoor education, having written my Master’s Thesis on Environmental Ethics, and being an avid Jeeper I like to think I have a unique perspective on, and a vested interest in, the topic.

We’ve all seen the Tread Lightly posters.
Ever wonder about the issues at play in the bigger picture?

Hopefully you’ll take the time to read what I have so say and realize that we as overlanders need to be concerned with what’s going on with the environment to insure not only that we have cool places to explore and visit but so do future generations.

First let’s look at the history behind the three dominate ideologies behind public land management. By better understanding these ideologies, how they differ, how they are the same, and why certain type of people lean to one side or the other, hopefully we can see it’s less of an “us verses them” scenario and more of a situation requiring cooperation, mutual respect, and trust.

In the late 1800’s near the turn of the century the United States was facing an environmental crisis. At the time there was no government oversight. This laissez-faire ideology left land management up to the private land owners. It was felt they knew what was best and would manage their property accordingly. However, the reality was the forests of the east coast where being clearcut and many game species were over-hunted and on the verge of extinction. The pattern of logging companies buying up land, clear cutting it, then selling it for pennies on the dollar was becoming common practice. These clearcut properties were prone to erosion, topsoil degradation and eventually water pollution. With the continual westward migration of the American people and their need for raw materials the vast expanses of natural resources of the west were the center of a hotly contested debate.

The remains of a clearcut forest in Tioga County Pennsylvania in 1914

With the unmitigated consumption of the laissez-faire option off the table, two new ideologies took center stage. On one side were the Conservationists. They viewed the natural world as a collection of resources for consumption that should be managed in order to ensure viable economic resources (water, timber, game, minerals, etc) for the future. On the other side were the Preservationists. They viewed the natural world as intrinsically valuable and should be set aside for protection from mankind’s interference. They felt the natural world was in need of protection and shouldn’t be used to fuel man’s insatiable need for consumption and growth.

It’s no secret President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid hunter.
His views on the environment 
would put him in the middle in the debate
and set the tone for the US as it entered new millennia. 

Most of the time these two ideologies were at odds. They seemed like total opposites. Two iconoclasts rose up championing their belief and seemingly attacking the other. Taking the Conservationist approach was the first Chief of the US Forest Service Gifford Pinchot. Taking the other side of the debate was naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir.

A portrait of Gifford Pinchot taken in 1901

Gifford Pinchot grew up in the timber industry of New England. His father, after experiencing years of prosperity, began to have regrets about the damage he and others in the logging industry were doing to the environment. At his father’s urging Gifford pursed an education in forestry and even spent time at the prestigious French School of Forestry. Upon returning to the United States the Pinchots endowed the forestry program at Yale University and turned the family property in Milford, PA into the crucible for a US based forestry movement. This movement would eventually gained enough traction to land Gifford Pinchot the honor and responsibility of being the first Chief Forester of the United States Forestry Service which was created in 1905 by President Roosevelt. After his time with the Forestry Service Pinchot would later become the 28th Governor of Pennsylvania. During this time he would continue the growth, development, and expansion of the PA public land management system (which would later include State Parks, State Game Lands, and State Forests) that had been the inspiration behind the federal system (National Parks, National Forests, and so on).

A portrait of Scottish-American John Muir taken in 1902

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1938 and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1849. Muir would grow up on the family farm in Wisconsin and later go on to pursue an education in chemistry and science. Due to an eclectic selection of courses Muir would never graduate with an official degree, but having gotten his fill he left academia. After a brief stint in Canada in order to avoid the Civil War draft he returned the United States. An unfortunate accident at the mill he was working at left him temporarily blind in one eye. His recovery from this accident gave him a new perspective on the world. After this he undertook is famous “1,000 mile walk.”Later he ended up working briefly with the US Coastal Survey before finally making his way to California.

President Roosevelt, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and others gather in California in the early 1900’s.

Although mutual concern for the environment had brought Muir and Pinchot together as friends before the turn of the century, their respective differences eventually drove them apart. Over the course of few years their mutual disdain for each other came to a head multiple times and one particular instance was over the future of the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Hetch Hetchy Valley in the early 1900’s

The increasing population in San Francisco, and the subsequent fire after the earthquake of 1906, had taxed the city’s water system beyond capacity. The city applied for and was awarded the water rights to a new reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley by damming the Toulumne River. This new reservoir would be nearly 2,000 square miles large and reach a depth of just over 300 feet.

Hetch Hetchy Valley after the completion of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923

The O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy Valley provides San Francisco with 934 gigawatt-hours of power annually along with 237 million gallons of water per day via the 167 mile Hetch Hetchy Aquaduct. Despite its as-intended success to provide fresh water to the city of San Francisco, the damn and flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is still a hotly debated action with some calling for the removal of the damn and restoration of the valley. This project has been, and still is, at the center of the conservation vs. preservation debate.

Current Federal Land Management Map color-coded by agency

Currently the federal government owns and manages around 640 million acres. The majority of this land is managed by four distinct agencies: the Forest Service (USFS) under the Department of Agriculture; and the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) all under the Department of the Interior (DOI). Remaining public land is managed by the Department of Defense administers which includes things like military bases, and training ranges.

As you can see from the above map the majority of this public land resides in the western half of the Continental United States and makes up most of Alaska. This is a direct result of westward expansion causing increased demand for natural resources resulting in a push for better land management This led to the formation of both the US Forestry Service in 1905 and the National Park Service in 1916 using both conservationist and preservationist ideologies respectively.

So, what does any of this have to do with overlanding?

Should we as overlanders be a part of this debate?

If so, which side should we be on?

What are the long term implications of conservation and preservation ideologies for the overlanding community?

There are no simple answers to these questions. I wish there was. That said, I’m not here to preach at you, shove answers at you, and say that we as overlanders need to stand firmly on one side or the other. I’m not here to make converts for one cause or another. My goal with this essay is to paint a brief picture as to background for many of the issues facing us today. My hope is that with a little more understanding of both ideologies we as overlanders can facilitate better discussions on the topic rather than letting people remain intrenched on their respective sides.

With more questions in mind than answers, at this time I would like to point you toward a few organizations we as overlanders should be aware of. Hopefully with a better understanding of the ideologies in play you can see which side the organization leans:

Tread Lightly – Tread Lightly is a land use advocacy organization that promotes responsible recreation of all type on land (hiking, mountain biking, 4×4’s, ATV’s, moto bikes, horse riding, etc) and on the water (boating, fishing, etc).

The core principles for Tread Lightly

Tread Lightly offers certifications, educational programs, and even awards grants for environmental stewardship. For specifics and additional information visit their “What we do” page on their site.

United Four Wheel Drive Association – The scope of the UFWDA extends beyond just land use advocacy, but it is one of their core functions. Per their website they are, “the only International Organization that represents you, the 4×4 enthusiast, exclusively. Entirely comprised of fellow enthusiasts, United (UFWDA) understands the issues that impact your lifestyle. Anti-access groups spend tremendous sums of money to close the areas where we all enjoy our sport. It is imperative that we have a strong and United voice to represent us.”

One way to stay informed on important issues is to sign up for UFWDA’s digital magazine The Voice. It’s a quarterly publication looking at everything in the 4×4 community ranging form vehicle modifications, club activities, and trail rides to land use, industry news, and 4×4 recreation. The Voice is free and does not require a UFWDA membership.

Blue Ribbon Coalition – The Blue Ribbon Coalition (BRC) is a land use advocacy organization born from the need to give political significance to outdoor recreationalists. From their site their mission, vision, and values are:

Mission – The BlueRibbon Coalition champions responsible use of public lands and waters for the benefit of all recreationists by educating and empowering its members to:

  • Secure, protect, and expand shared outdoor recreation access and use 
  • Work collaboratively with natural resource managers and other recreationists 
  • Educate the general public, media, elected officials, and other decision makers on recreation and access issues 
  • Promote equitable and responsible natural resource management 
  • Affect the political and administrative process 
  • Support recreation on, and promote respect for, private property 
  • Encourage appropriate enforcement of the law 

Vision – The BlueRibbon Coalition is the leading national coalition of organizations, businesses and individuals that:

  • Provides leadership in responsible use 
  • Promotes balanced resource conservation 
  • Is recognized by the general public, the media, and elected officials as the leader in promoting common sense and an equitable approach to recreation and access issues 


  • Tolerance 
  • Equity/Fairness 
  • Equal Access Opportunities 
  • Resource Ethics 
  • Shared Use 
  • Common Sense 
  • Cooperation 
  • Honesty/Integrity 
  • Resource Stewardship 
  • Education 
  • Responsible Use 
  • Heritage/Culture 
  • Respect

Leave No Trace – Leave No Trace embodies the mindset of “take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints.” Their mission is to, “protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly.” They breakdown this mission into seven core principles:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces 
Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find 
Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife 
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors 

For more details on these principles, what they look like in practice, and what it means for sustainable outdoor recreation please check out their website.

The Sierra Club – Although I may get crucified for bringing up the Sierra Club on an overlanding lifestyle blog (it’s no secret which way they lean), it is important for overlanders to understand the who, what, where, and why of the Sierra Club.

In their own words the Sierra Club is, “Founded by legendary conservationist John Muir in 1892, the Sierra Club is now the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization — with more than two million members and supporters. Our successes range from protecting millions of acres of wilderness to helping pass the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. More recently, we’ve made history by leading the charge to move away from the dirty fossil fuels that cause climate disruption and toward a clean energy economy.”

It should be noted that while they claim John Muir as a “legendary conservationist” he, and the Sierra Club to this day, are firmly rooted in the preservationist ideology. Semantics aside, the Sierra club has an emphasis on protecting the environment from human intervention and the consumption of it’s natural resources. It can be argued that the modern Sierra Club is a far cry from that its founder John Muir had intended, but what cannot be argued is that the Sierra Club does have an impact on where we as overlanders can go and what we can do when we get there. This is a case when being informed about both sides of an issue can help foster discussion for the sake of progress.


These organizations are just a few of the popular recreation and land use advocacy group that overlanders can, and most likely will, encounter. I’m not saying these are the only organizations overlanders should be concerned with. I’m also not saying every overlander should be supporting these organizations. What I am saying is that we as overlanders need to pay attention to what’s going on with these organizations and how it impacts the overland adventure lifestyle.

Hopefully this brief look at the history of environmental stewardship in the United States will encourage you to look a little more critically as the current state of things. Personally I believe we need to be informed. We also need to do our part to make sure we have places to explore and enjoy not just today but tomorrow. As I said, I’m not here to make converts out of you one way or the other. Personally I don’t agree with blind adherence to one ideology over another. I also don’t think it means every acre across the country needs to managed the same. I don’t see conservation and preservation as two opposites at odds with each other. Instead I see them as two sides of the same coin. I think we need both because without both we will have nowhere to go or no way to get there.