UPDATE: On Oct. 25, the National Park Service reversed their decision, rescinding their order that Utah superintendents allow off-road vehicles in the state’s national parks. We’ll keep you updated as we learn more about this policy change.
Beginning on Nov. 1, off-highway vehicles known as OHVs—a term that includes ATVs and UTVs—will be permitted on roads within national park boundaries. What this will look like to the average visitor and the quality of the parks depends on who you ask.
In recent years, the off-road vehicles have become increasingly popular, with over 202,000 total registered owners of street-legal OHVs in the state, according to the Utah State Bulletin. Hundreds of miles of public roads and trails managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have been approved for OHV use, but the vehicles have long been barred from traveling roads within the national parks.
A Sudden Policy Change?
The Code of Federal Regulations governing national parks includes a passage that says that traffic and vehicle use within a park area is governed by state law unless specifically addressed by federal regulations. That small piece of policy appeared of little consequence until 2008, when Utah lawmakers passed a bill that allowed street-legal OHVs on all state and county roads.
The bill originated with rural lawmakers and residents and at some point included an opt-out clause for any community in the state, according to then-Utah State Rep. Brad King, who spoke at a Moab community meeting in 2015 and said that the clause “mysteriously” disappeared from the final version of the bill. Today, only Salt Lake County is exempt.
Utah’s parks barred OHV use in their policies and, for over 11 years, this discrepancy went mostly unremarked upon. But for some OHV fans, that hasn’t sat right.
“There is already a lot of accessible trails, but nobody likes to be singled out as the group denied a public benefit, especially when they’ve broken no law,” said Benjamin Burr, policy director for the BlueRibbon Coalition, which advocates for shared motorized and non-motorized use of public lands.
“OHV groups did start to get together to bring this to the attention of the NPS (National Parks Service) to get the policies more consistent with state law,” said Burr, pointing to petitions begun this year by organizations like UTV Utah.
In early September, state Rep. Phil Lyman joined in, posting a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt asking him to remove the National Park Service’s ban, calling the policy “discriminatory, arbitrary, and capricious.”
Lyman was convicted of trespass and conspiracy in 2015 after leading a group of OTV riders through Recapture Canyon near Monticello, which was closed to motorized travel by the BLM to protect archaeologically delicate sites. He was a San Juan County commissioner at the time.
On Sept. 24, Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, acting director of the Intermountain Region, issued a memo directing all national parks within Utah to conform to state law and accept street-legal OHVs on roads where vehicles are permitted.
Days later, Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks, which comprises Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments, released a memo opposing the directive.
Cannon asserted that under federal regulations, park superintendents have the discretion to “designate areas for a specific use or activity, or impose conditions or restrictions on a use or activity.”
As superintendent, the memo states, her decision was “to continue the current prohibition against [OHVs] on park roads within Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and Natural Bridges National Monument.”
National Park Service spokesperson Vanessa Lacayo confirmed that the directive to open the parks to OHV use isn’t totally out of step with other park’s policy, pointing out that OHV use is permitted under similar regulations in Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks.
As far as any formal park service reaction to Cannon’s memo opposing the directive and the resulting controversy?
“We are working through a formal process right now to see what policy should be,” said Lacayo, declining to say more.
WHAT IS A STREET LEGAL OHV?
“It’s not every OHV that can go cruising into a national park. You have to pay for registration, you have to get a license so you can be found by law enforcement, you have to get insurance.here are many ties that create an environment where responsible users can show that they earn this privilege,” said Burr.
In Utah, OHVs must be licensed and registered as well as have safety features like turn signals and rearview mirrors in order to become “street-legal.” However, the 2008 law permitting these vehicles on public roads is controversial in its own right.
Major trade groups representing ATV and UTV manufacturers like Polaris and John Deere oppose laws making their vehicles street-legal. The Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association, which uses the term ROV to describe the vehicles, has issued formal statements discouraging states from promoting or approving of on-highway use.
“ROHVA emphasizes that ROVs are not designed, manufactured, or in any way intended for use on public streets or highways and urges that on-highway use of ROVs be prohibited and law enforcement efforts be strengthened to eliminate this practice,” the group said in a formal statement.
Similar statements from groups like Specialty Vehicle Institute of America point out that on-road use “would be contrary to federal safety requirements,” while affirming support for ATV and UTV access to logging roads and unimproved trails on public land.
NOISE, TRAFFIC AND OTHER CONCERNS
Opponents of opening park roads to OHVs point to the impact of the vehicles on the “basic visitor experience” within parks, adding to noise levels, dust, erosion and traffic congestion.
A petition by the National Parks Conservation Association states that “off-road vehicles have more aggressive tire treads and smaller wheels that cause greater wear on backcountry roads and lead to more dust and erosion. Their engines are as much as 50% louder than typical vehicles in parks which could disrupt wildlife, not to mention other visitors. And in Utah, off-road vehicles are exempt from emissions tests.”
“These vehicles are built for traveling off-road,” the petition says.
Most crucially, opponents point to the potential for OHVs to go off of permitted roads and damage vulnerable ecosystems, including cryptobiotic soil.
There are existing punishments for illegal off-road activity, including a maximum fine of $5,000 and up to six months in prison. Damaging archaeological resources can carry a maximum penalty of $20,000 and two years in prison.
“The propensity of these vehicles to be driven off-road even where prohibited is well established in research,” Cannon’s memo asserts, going on to say that the park service is not equipped to prevent or prosecute such illegal acts.
“Not everyone who gets into a Polaris RZR is out ripping up crypto crust,” said Burr, referring to a popular model of UTV. Burr challenged the assertion that OHV users are more inclined to break these laws than other drivers of off-road vehicles.
He did acknowledge the validity of some other objections to OHV impacts but said that he believed access should be granted before working those issues out.
“Kate Cannon is raising concerns about emissions and noise,” said Burr, “and we have to see where these discussions go. I’d like to think that these issues can be controlled with regulation, rather than a blanket ban.”
CONSERVATION OR ACCESS
Much of the debate over OHV access centers around what the main priority should be when determining access to parks and other public lands. One side advocates for the protection of wilderness resources to be the priority; the other side favors putting public access first.
The majority of Cannon’s rationale argues that OHV use is wholly incompatible with the mission of the park service. However, she also argues that if policy accepting the vehicles was proposed, that policy would have to go through a formal process of scrutiny and public input before being accepted.
That process didn’t happen here.
Burr, whose organization was founded to challenge the idea that “wilderness was more important than motorized access to public lands,” according to their website, doesn’t see that as a problem.
“There are people that try to get NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) evaluations done and that can take ten years,” he said.
Last year, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area opened up some areas to OHV use after a nine-year period of environmental study and public comment periods. However, this study evaluated areas off public roads.
Superintendent Cannon declined to comment for this story, indicating that she believed local state and county elected officials were the important voices to listen to evaluate the policy.
As far as concerns over a lack of public notice, Burr said “the process really started when the legislature passed the laws allowing street-legal OHVs. There was plenty of time to speak up about concerns and in the ten years since.”
LOCAL OPPOSITION SPEAKS UP
Grand County, the town of Castle Valley and the City of Moab councils came together to pass a united resolution at an emergency joint meeting on Oct. 15. The resolution read, in part, that the local governments oppose allowing OHVs to travel roads in parks and monuments without environmental study and until existing traffic congestion is addressed.
“The parks are a special place and they are highly regulated,” said Grand County Council Chair Evan Clapper. “You’re not even allowed to fly a kite in the National Park because the effects of that would have on other user experiences.”
During public comment at the meeting, Moab resident Wayne Hoskinson rejected claims that the ban was discriminatory, pointing out that “everyone is welcome in the parks,” as long as they follow the stated park policies. Resident Kylie Miller urged the group to also consider advocating against the state law and “try to get [OHVs] off of our streets.
Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus seemed to realize that the state law was at the center of the controversy, stating at the Oct. 15 joint meeting that the law was “the reason for this change, and that needs to be looked at and examined.”
“I do think that we need to, as a resort community, discuss amending the Utah law that allows at OHVs on the road,” Niehaus said, suggesting discussion of curfews or noise regulations.
“I encourage us to move forward with this conversation,” she said, adding that the voices of local OHV tour operators and others would be important.