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‘It’s painful to be discriminated against’: Moab’s off-road community changes after BLM closes trails

The OHV community is growing more political, seeking unity and becoming more self-conscious of its impact.

(Ride with Respect) Dave Hellman, the owner of Xtreme 4×4 tours, traverses a rocky turn on the Kane Creek Canyon Trail.

Moab • At the base of Sovereign Trail, Clif Koontz gestures towards a sign. “Less sound equals more ground. Less tracks equals more trails,” he reads. The sayings have a witty ring to them. But beneath the glimmer of humor is a more foreboding message: stay in line, or more trails will be closed.

Tyler Welch, the owner of motorcycle tour company Ride Moab Industries, said he’s seen off-highway vehicle enthusiasts coalesce around this shared sense of responsibility in recent years. “Everyone’s realizing that we’re not promised anything,” he said.

With the sour taste of the Bureau of Land Management’s most recent travel management plan in its collective mouth, the Moab OHV community — a group diverse in recreational interests and values — is growing more political, seeking unity and becoming more self-conscious of its impact.

In September, the BLM issued a travel management plan that closed 317 miles of motorized routes in the Labyrinth Canyon area. The decision quickly became a flashpoint in an already tense conflict between motorized recreation enthusiasts and environmentalists.

In the wake of the decision, some OHV users say they feel demonized. “It’s painful to be discriminated against … because people have a stereotype of what off-roaders are or do,” said Melissa Clark, a three-time winner of the women’s off-road competition Rebelle Rally.

People think off-roaders “just want loud noises and speed and sand and dirt flying and that they don’t care about the country they’re traveling through,” said Dee McNenny, a four-wheeling enthusiast. “…That’s so far from the reality. We want to be able to get to these overlooks of the river … because we think they’re beautiful. We want to sit on those rocks and look out at the desert and soak it in.”

A decades long shift

When President of Moab Friends for Wheelin’ Jeff Stevens began jeeping, he used his background in engineering to craft a vehicle capable of surmounting the obstacles on Moab’s most technical trails. In those days, to have a capable vehicle, you had to build it out yourself.

That changed in the late 1990s. The Jeep Wrangler TJ model, a technical leap for off-roading, was released in 1997. “And then the Rubicon came out, and boy, that was really something,” said Stevens.

The 2003 Jeep model was marketed as a vehicle that could traverse the famous Rubicon Trail in California, a 22-mile-long route and destination for technical off-roading — right off the showroom floor.

“The old-timers didn’t really like that, because it was almost a threat to them … they had their old bearings that they cobbled together and made so great, and now you could just go out and buy something that was just so capable,” he said.

(Gwen Dilworth | The Times-Independent) Jeff Stevens works on his rock crawler in his garage.

The doors to off-roading opened wider in the early 2000s, when highly capable ATVs and UTVs came on the market. “It [opened] it up to a lot more people,” said Stevens.

OHV enthusiasts acknowledge that the rapid growth of off-roading poses a challenge for the activity’s future.

“I don’t think people are … as invested,” said Stevens.

The culture of off-roading education has also shifted. While many older riders learned to ride by joining clubs, younger generations are more likely to learn from YouTube or TikTok videos.

“I was lucky to find clubs that focused on teaching skills to their members,” said McNenny, a member of Red Rock 4-Wheelers and Moab Friends for Wheelin’. She said that the clubs taught her trail etiquette, responsible recreation and how to take care of her vehicle. But now, the clubs’ membership has gotten older and young people aren’t interested in joining. “Without clubs to teach you what you need to know … there’s really nowhere for people to go,” she said.

Clark agrees. In the early 2000s, “we had less volume, but we also had teachers.”

Closure

For many motorized users, the recent travel management plan conjures an emotional response.

“It’s denying thousands and thousands of people a chance to become viscerally aware of the fragility of the desert and the importance of taking care of it,” said McNenny.

Welch, a former Marine combat veteran, said that motorcycling is a respite for him. “I found that this is a great tool for me to settle myself. And so it just scares me of losing access to my form of therapy.”

Clark said she feels a sense of loss knowing that she will no longer be able to visit treasured places. She remembers a time when Ber Knight, a beloved figure in the Moab off-roading community who wheeled into his 90s, rescued her from Hey Joe Canyon when her vehicle broke down. “No one will ever hike down there, no one will use that area. It’s gone,” she said.

Kathy Tustanowski retired to Moab after a 30-year career with the National Park Service. She fell in love with off-roading because it allowed her to access far-flung, “wild” places. She said that while she is willing to accept trail closures if they are for “the greater good,” she wonders if there are more effective ways to manage trails than through closure.

Koontz, the program director of the non-profit Ride with Respect, thinks there are. He has spent two decades working on trail restoration, and he said that when done right, trail management can be a form of conservation.

He said that there are many ways to manage trails effectively. “That includes closing the trail,” he said. “There are situations where that is the right response … but most often not, and sometimes people do jump to that conclusion prematurely.

“…I feel like we wind up with this pursuit of preservation or rewilding at the expense of conservation,” he said.

This is not the first time that the OHV community has lost access to trails. In 2008, a BLM resource management plan closed a significant portion of motorized routes in Grand County. After the closures went into effect, residents complained in a 2010 Times-Independent article that the roads had been closed “with no rhyme or reason” and with “total disregard for people who appreciate the backcountry,” echoing the sentiments of some people within the motorized recreation community today.

“The only thing available to the motorized community is closure,” said Reid Bakkan. “There’s not talk of how we’re going to improve trails.”

Some members of the OHV community worry that as trail closures narrow the field of motorized routes, there might one day be none left.

“Every time … we lose, and we never gain. And that’s why this last round has been so hard,” said Stevens.

A call to organize

Koontz said that in the time he’s worked for Ride with Respect, he’s watched the nature of his work shift. The organization used to perform thousands of hours of trail work a year, but now only does hundreds. “In other words, a tenth of what it was,” he said.

The organization now focuses more of its work on responding to trail closures. “The biggest change is having to shift from being mostly a service dog, so to speak, to largely a watchdog,” he said.

He said the organization still aims to toe the line between being solely a stewardship organization, like Tread Lightly!, or an advocacy-based organization, like the BlueRibbon Coalition.

Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition, an organization that advocates for increased motorized access on public lands, has emerged as one of the most widely recognized representatives for OHV users’ interests over the past several years. Since the Labyrinth Canyon travel management plan was issued in September, it has filed several lawsuits aiming to halt or revert road closures.

It has reached this stature in part because its legal efforts mirror those of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). The organization brought a lawsuit against several of the BLM’s 2008 management plans that led to the series of recently reworked travel management plans.

“We’re going to just have to mimic what [SUWA does],” said Clark. “…I don’t know another way to respond to it.”

For some, it has also supplanted the role of local organizations, like the Grand County Motorized Trails Committee. Koontz, the chair of the committee, said that several participants chose to stop participating after the travel management plan was released.

“They’re going to groups like the BlueRibbon Coalition,” said Bakkan, the e-bike representative for the committee. He fears that this leads to division within the motorized community.

Mark Pope disagrees. “If the individuals sitting around the table at the motorized trail committee … do not separate themselves from the county and organize to have a voice for the community, it will never happen.”

Pope is also a member of Red Rock 4-Wheelers. “We’re not a political organization, we exist to recreate,” he said. But he believes that in light of the trail closures, the organization must become more political.

Welch said that while off-road enthusiasts are generally caught up in day-to-day activities and don’t have much time to collaborate with one another, that could soon change. “The majority of off-road enthusiasts … realize that we have to come together.”

“In the long run,” said Stevens, “it’s absolutely critical to have a unified voice.”

A changing culture

McNenny likens OHV enthusiasts to snowboarders. When snowboarding first became popular, it was vilified by some skiers, who blamed snowboarders for damaging slopes and violating proper etiquette. For years, snowboarders were barred from most ski resorts. But today, that animosity is a thing of the past.

(Ride with Respect) Kathy Tustanowski, a self-described “65-year-old grandma” takes a break on a ride. She said that when she started riding motorcycles, some of her friends said they were worried about her.

She hopes that with proper training and enforcement — akin to ski patrols — off-roading may become more accepted by other user groups and land managers.

Clark, who works with Ford and writes for the Bronco Nation website, said she would like companies to take more responsibility for teaching proper etiquette to vehicle owners. She noted that today, each Bronco comes with an optional Ford-led off-road training course.

In January 2023, Utah began requiring all OHV users to complete the 30-minute off-highway vehicle education course.

Tyler Welch said that he’s also noticed off-roaders take on the responsibility of becoming better stewards of the land themselves. “I think all of us have realized that our actions matter, and that we need to be putting our best foot forward to maintain our access to the countryside,” he said.

Stevens acknowledged, though, that in spite of his best efforts, off-road recreation does have an impact on the environment. “Let’s face it, this earth can only sustain so much,” he said. “I’m making an impact, probably a negative impact. But I try to offset that with the good things that I do.”

He said that he is optimistic about the role that electric vehicles and bicycles will play in mitigating emissions and noise. But, “you still have to mine minerals to make the batteries,” he said. “Everything is a compromise.”