Controversial off-road rally divides Moab

After Grand County denied a special event permit to the annual Rally on the Rocks, event promoters found a new home in San Juan County.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) UTV side-by-sides explore the "Behind the Rocks Trail" in San Juan County, along US-191, as part of the Rally on the Rocks trail ride on Friday, May 14, 2021.

Spanish Valley • Moab area officials were faced with a choice last year between responding to citizen complaints about off-highway vehicle noise in town and a five-day event that typically generates millions of dollars in local economic activity. In the end, they sided with a set of vocal locals, who said that event was just too loud.

For 10 years, Rally on the Rocks, an annual gathering for off-road enthusiasts, brought hundreds of off-road utility terrain vehicles (UTVs) to Grand County. Drivers participated in guided rides on Moab’s world-famous trails and thousands of attendees stayed in area hotels, ate in local restaurants, and milled through the event’s trade show expo where manufacturers showcased the latest products.

But following a series of heated public meetings the Grand County Commission denied a special event permit for the rally in December. The rally moved several miles south of Moab into nearby San Juan County, where it wrapped up on Saturday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) UTV side-by-sides explore the trails in San Juan County, during the Rally on the Rocks, on Friday, May 14, 2021.

“This event,” said Sean Reddish, promoter and co-organizer for Rally on the Rocks, “has been the number one tax revenue event for the county of Grand County over the last [several] years,” bringing in upward of $2 million annually.

“You can’t deny the impact financially of [UTVs] on the city of Moab,” he said.

But the machines, which are allowed to drive on all city and county roads that are open to other vehicles under Utah state law, brought other impacts to the 5,400-person city, according to Mary McGann, chair of the seven-member Grand County Commission.

“It was predominantly the noise,” McGann said. “[UTVs] would be going up and down the streets from early in the morning until bars closed at two o’clock. It was a constant drone. People couldn’t sleep; they couldn’t enjoy their yards. It was horrible.”

Moab, quiet during the pandemic, bars the event

Last year, Grand County imposed a long list of stipulations on the event to mitigate concerns from the community. But in the end, the rally was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nationwide lockdowns last spring brought a rare bit of quiet to Moab streets, and when restrictions started to lift, many residents said the ensuing racket was made all the more intense by contrast. Citizens became even more vocal about the negative impacts of UTV traffic on their quality of life last fall in letters to the local papers, petitions and public comments at meetings.

The decision to deny the permit was welcomed by the majority of county residents, McGann said. “It wasn’t as divisive for the community as it was for [visiting] UTV and ATV users.” Most people who wrote letters to the commission opposing the event were locals, she added, while those who wrote in support of it were largely from elsewhere in the state.

Reddish, who lives in Hurricane, doesn’t deny noise is an issue for residents, but he said the citizen complaint letters were biased against the event because local officials asked for people to write in with their concerns.

“Anybody that owns a business knows that you can get a complaint about 100 times quicker than you can get a compliment,” he said. “That’s just reality.”

Low turnout after move to San Juan County

After denying the event permit, McGann and other commissioners unsuccessfully urged the San Juan County Commission to do the same. The rally organizers originally requested to lease San Juan County property in Spanish Valley for the expo, but it was later moved to private land nearby.

The trail rides were also limited only to trails in San Juan County, blocking participating riders from some of the most famous area trails like Hells Revenge, which are typically accessed through residential neighborhoods in Moab.

In years past, the Bureau of Land Management allowed 550 off-highway vehicles to participate in daily guided rides, Reddish said, but with fewer nearby trail options in San Juan County, that number was reduced to 125 vehicles per day for last week’s event.

The lower turnout could also have been linked to the pandemic, not just the venue change, Reddish added, since people may have been hesitant to make travel plans earlier this spring. The surge of visitors who arrived in Grand County for spring break and for last month’s Moab Easter Jeep Safari is likely linked a recent outbreak of COVID-19, according to local health officials. Grand County’s coronavirus infection rate ranked in the top 4% of U.S. counties while Rally on the Rocks was taking place.

The Grand County Commission was pleased with the results of the move to San Juan County, however. “From our perspective, it was much quieter and less disruptive in Moab and Grand County,” McGann said.

But expo vendors complained of low turnout compared to previous years.

“I love Moab. I live it. I breathe it,” said Rodd Gerhardy, a sales manager for Kawasaki USA from Ogden who has attended every Rally on the Rocks event for 10 years. “But some of the regulars say they’re not coming back because they think the town doesn’t want them here.” Some businesses in town posted “We support OHV” signs to push back on that perception.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Some businesses displayed stickers supporting the OHV event Rally on the Rocks, on Friday, May 14, 2021.

Gerhardy estimated attendance at the expo had dropped by half compared to previous years. “It’s usually packed,” he said, standing outside a deserted Kawasaki vendor booth on Friday afternoon. But falling attendance has nothing to do with the popularity of UTV riding. “My sales for side-by-sides [in Oregon, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho] are up 188%,” Gerhardy said.

A new path forward?

Despite the lower attendance, Reddish estimates that the economic benefits in Grand County and Moab, where most of the amenities are in the area, were comparable to past years.

Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus said the new location for the event helped mitigate the noise impacts in town, along with other efforts that are being made by the city and county.

Niehaus and others pushed for an amendment to state code this spring that would have allowed the city to impose a nighttime curfew on off-highway vehicles, but the effort stalled in the Legislature. Following the defeat, she said, “we went back and amended our noise ordinance, basically saying from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m., machines have to be at or below the 85-decibel limit. But during the day, vehicles can go up to 92 decibels.”

That change, along with lower speed limits imposed for off-highway vehicles in town last year, was opposed by off-highway vehicle advocacy groups like the Blue Ribbon Coalition. But Niehaus said they have helped address noise concerns.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) UTV side-by-sides explore the trails in San Juan County, during the Rally on the Rocks trail, on Friday, May 14, 2021.

“From my perspective, we have enjoyed a quieter Moab as a result of the speed limit and now the curfew,” she said. “I knew there would be more noise this weekend because of the events, but I really didn’t see a noticeable — an irritatingly noticeable — difference.”

Reddish also acknowledges loud machines are a problem, and he said Rally on the Rocks is offering to fund a part-time county employee position to measure decibel levels at rental shops and on streets.

“I will pay for a part-time employee to do sound abatement,” he said, estimating that it would cost between $20,000 and $30,000 annually.

McGann is open to seeing such a proposal so long as it’s not a condition for bringing the event back to Grand County in 2022.

But for his part, Reddish would like to see that option back on the table.

“I’m going to put a permit request [in for Grand County’s consideration next year],” he said. “I’m optimistic.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.