Daniel Baker on the Value of Dirt Roads
for Conserving Wildlife Habitat
(May 2008)

Editor's Note: Mr. Baker wrote this essay in response to aftermath discussions of the Cascabel Working Group's successful efforts to oppose the insertion of an I-10 Bypass route through the San Pedro River Valley in Arizona. While the words apply directly to that area, they may have relevance elsewhere as well.

Part I

As with our CWG work on the I-10 bypass, I have been impressed with the civility and intelligence of the Cascabel Road discussion. What is different in our discussions now, as opposed to the unanimity about the bypass, is the diversity of opinions among us, which leads me to wonder if this is comparatively "cake." Everyone has made good, valid points; reasonable people can disagree, and I doubt that consensus will be achieved.

It appears that most people do agree about the impacts that development would bring. We made the points persuasively with regard to the bypass how destructive not only the physical structure but the attendant development would be for this incredibly rich environmental gem we few inhabit. If that was not just a NIMBY concern then, we cannot ignore it now.

Most seem to be in favor of limitations to growth, whether it is zoning restrictions, limiting wells, a county comprehensive plan, or some wider protection for the valley. But knowing how difficult, protracted and precarious such efforts can be, and that life is what happens while we are making plans, in the meantime I believe the dirt road is our ace in the hole. Most agree that it always has been. If something as inhibiting to development as our dirt road comes to pass, I will reconsider my views.

I have trouble imagining an area of incredible natural beauty, abundant water, in the desert southwest, adjacent to some of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and not going the way of other areas even less richly blessed - if not for some disability like a slow road to blunt "progress." The last census showed that while Cochise County cities grew significantly, it was the unincorporated portions of the County that grew the most - with more residents, excepting Sierra Vista, than the six other cities combined. More people want to live in scenic and rural areas. That a major Cascabel landowner is volubly campaigning for paving so he can proceed with a development plan is evidence enough to me.

I am not terribly inclined to the "third way" of improvement either, except in limited ways. It took weeks to crown, barrow and prepare the road bed for the last section of paving, and about two days to actually pave it. You are already 80% there. Making access easier is the slippery slope to becoming every other place. Making speed easier is a prescription for more accidents and calls for straightening and reengineering the road. That doesn't mean that those particular areas that are head cutting couldn't be selectively improved. Bill Zeedyke's advice was to significantly narrow the road, not widen it as the county routinely does with its improvements.

Anna agrees that she is in favor of the 'slow' road, with signs and speed bumps. I favor the signs, but we already have the slow road and lots of bumps. What we don't have are slow drivers. This is where I veer from political solutions to personal ones. As Wendell Berry said in his rant against special interests, "…they propose that the trouble is caused by OTHER people; they would like to change policy but not behavior."

The rationales for paving seem to be primarily safety, dust and vehicle maintenance, all valid points. David O. thinks the main rationale is speed. He proffered the view that he'd be in favor of paving the road if it could be assured that no travel would exceed 25 mph. Since I'm the lazy and simple-minded sort I thought: if we all travelled 25 mph we wouldn't NEED to pave the road. We could save ourselves all that work and money, go get a beer and talk about something more interesting.

Here's the logic to my idea. 1. DUST: Driving 25 DRAMATICALLY reduces the dust pollution; just slow down and look in the rearview mirror. 2. WASHBOARD: While the cause of washboard may have several contributing factors, the one proven element is speed. "The researchers found one, and only one, solution: Slow down. A lot." (See 1963 Scientific American and 2007 Physical Review Letters). 3. MAINTENANCE: Less washboard and speed means less maintenance both for the road and your vehicle. 4. SAFETY: It has been proven many times over that speed kills, especially on this road. 5. ENVIRONMENT: Most of the environmental arguments against the I-10 bypass apply to speed on this road, especially animal road kill. 6. DEVELOPMENT: Speed will exacerbate all the above negatives and help make the argument for paving. That will bring development, higher land prices, attendant higher property taxes and the end of a truly relaxed, rural life here - not to mention the impacts on the natural community.

Part II:

Well, enough for logic; that usually just sets people to arguing anyway. Here's my illogic, which has the advantage of just being my own noodle-headed opinion. A big reason why I came out here was probably like a lot of others, to lead a happier, saner life. If I drive 40 mph plus on the dirt road, I get that "still-crazy-after-all-these-years" feeling that life is a destination. When I slow way down, I feel different, I enjoy things. I feel more part of this land, like the best kind of patriot who really loves his country. I can actually see who it is I'm waving to, maybe even stop in the middle of the road and talk to them. Yeah, like country folk. Like the folks who have ridden this old Leach Wagon Road since the 1860s in wagons and jalopies at speeds even slower than 25 mph and still managed to raise their kids, make a living and be reasonably happy.

Not being an entirely touchy-feely sort of guy, I did calculate that driving 25 mph instead of the far end of the legal 35 and above (excluding here the outlaws who drive it 50 plus) would cost less than one minute per mile. So driving from Canyon Road to the pavement on my way to Benson might take an extra 15 minutes roundtrip. I don't have 15 minutes to slow down and enjoy life, not to mention do something about all those "rational" issues like dust, safety and the future of this place? Miller was willing to give up flying; I can give up a few minutes.

Well, I expect my "25 MPH" idea will generate about as much enthusiasm as my "Hermits Unite" club. That's okay; at least I am doing my part and behaving consistent with my values. I don't have to wait for a county plan or political consensus, which the diversity of opinion makes dubious in any event. Yes, problems will remain with the dirt road because speeding will persist - as I expect it would even more so with a paved or improved one - but those problems will fall more squarely on the perpetrators.

On the other hand, people could start a movement toward real acknowledgement of the specialness of this place by virtue of our behavior. Driving 25 mph makes a statement. Whether or not the road lies easy on the land, we can drive easy on the road and do what we can not to be part of the problem. That's the nice thing about changing behavior. We don't have to wait for everyone to agree; it is where the power lies, with us and our lived values. If it expresses a good ethic, it may even catch on.

In that vein, I would like to give credit to those who influenced me to this personal covenant to not travel faster than 25 mph on the dirt portion of the Cascabel Road excepting real emergency (which by the way has been a success and personal delight for the past six months). Well, it's David's fault; he got me to thinking. I have long enjoyed Manny and Rose's leisurely driving pace, which they said reduces vehicle maintenance problems; I also think it reflects their values. Woody attributes his casual cowboy motoring gait to the infirmities of his old pickup, but he quoted Jim Corbett saying, "You know you're going too fast when you raise dust." Amen brother.