The roar of ATVs could be coming to a Utah national park backcountry road near you under a major policy shift initiated by the National Park Service without public input.
Across the country, off-road vehicles like ATVs and UTVs are generally barred from national parks. For Utah’s famed parks, however, that all changes starting Nov. 1, when these vehicles may be allowed on both main access roads and back roads like Canyonlands National Park’s White Rim and Arches’ entry points from Salt Valley and Willow Springs.
The move was ordered Tuesday by the the National Park Service’s acting regional director, Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, who directed a memo to Utah park superintendents instructing them to align their regulations with Utah law, which allows off-road vehicles to travel state and county roads as long as they are equipped with standard safety equipment and are registered and insured.
“This alignment with state law isn’t carte blanche to take their ATVs off road,” said agency spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo. “If people [drive] off road, they will be cited. Protection of these resources is paramount.”
Under the rule change, off-highway vehicles could roam Canyonlands’ Maze District and Arches’ Klondike Buffs — as long as they remain on designated routes. In general, ATVs would be allowed to travel roads that are open to trucks and cars.
The directive, which applies only to Utah parks, triggered an immediate backlash from conservation groups, which predicted the move will result in a “management nightmare” for parks already struggling with traffic jams and parking clutter.
Now the park service is inviting a whole new category of vehicle onto park roads, establishing new uses that will disrupt wildlife and other visitors’ enjoyment, warned Kristen Brengel, the National Parks Conservation Association’s vice president of government affairs.
“These are national parks that have incredible resources, cultural resources, natural resources, and so by allowing these vehicles that are tailored to go anywhere, you’re potentially putting these resources at risk,” Brengel said. “The park service should be going through a public process, doing an analysis and making sure they can adequately protect the park and its resources and visitors. They haven’t done that.”
Brengel said her group is conferring with its attorneys to consider its options to block the rule change.
Setting the stage for this change in policy was SB181 enacted by Utah lawmakers in 2008, authorizing any “street-legal” vehicle on all state and county roads. For the past 11 years, the National Park Service has pushed back, closing park roads to these recreational vehicles under the rationale that it is too easy to drive them illegally off the roads.
“The addition of off-road vehicle traffic on park roads will inevitably result in injury and damage to park resources. These specialized vehicles are designed, produced and marketed for the purpose of off-road travel, and they are uniquely capable of easily leaving the road and traveling cross country,” states a 2008 park service memo explaining why Arches and Canyonlands should remain off-limits to ATVs. “No reasonable level of law enforcement presence would be sufficient to prevent ATV and OHV use off roads. Park rangers will have no ability to pursue and apprehend vehicle users off road without adding to the damage they cause to park resources.”
When Utah enacted SB181, all-terrain vehicles, which ride like a four-wheeled motorcycle, were the most used off-road vehicle. UTVs, or so-called utility terrain vehicles, equipped with side-by-side bucket seats, steering wheels, robust suspension and roll cages, have since eclipsed ATVs in popularity, as well as their ability to create impacts. They can be operated at higher speeds and can be so loud that occupants wear ear protection.
Jenkins, who served most recently as the superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park, issued the directive after off-highway groups and Utah lawmakers led by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, pressured the Interior Department to lift the prohibition.
In a Sept. 2 letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Lyman wrote that he is "offended" that the park service discriminates against off-highway vehicle owners, noting than nearly all of Utah's national parks are accessed from state and county roads.
“The owners of street-legal OHVs comply with numerous laws and regulations to be given the privilege to drive on a wide range of state and county roads,” he wrote in the letter, signed by 13 other Utah lawmakers. “They also contribute to the maintenance of the state highway system through gasoline taxes and registration fees.”
Lyman is the former San Juan County commissioner who became a political celebrity after organizing an off-road vehicle protest ride though Recapture Canyon, which resulted in misdemeanor convictions, 10 days in jail and a reputation as a public lands warrior.
Adding pressure were UTV Utah and Utah OHV Advocates. According to the groups, Utah is home to 202,000 registered OHVs, or off-highway vehicles, the broad category that includes UTVs and ATVs.
“Despite being one of the largest groups of public land users, and even though the economic benefit of our community dwarfs most other recreational users combined, we often find ourselves discriminated against by decision-makers that head public land agencies,” the groups’ presidents, Bud Bruening and Brett Stewart, wrote in a joint July 29 letter to Bernhardt. “In Utah, this discrimination is particularly acute when it comes to the National Park Service.”
Many southern Utah county commissioners had lobbied for this change in the hopes of widening riders’ options for roaming Utah’s public lands. Counties maintain many of these back roads, according to Newell Harward, a Wayne County commissioner who welcomed the rule change.
“We are happy with it,” said Harward, whose county includes Capitol Reef National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. “It will increase some tourism issues with folks who want to use some of these roads with street-legal UTVs. I don’t know the difference between those and small Jeeps [which had always been allowed]. I’m hoping people will pay attention to the laws and stay on roads. If they don’t, then this is going to get backed up.”
Glen Canyon had already loosened its rules a few years ago, when it developed a new travel plan allowing ATVs on roads around Circle Cliffs. But that was only after a public process, an environmental review and a final decision that has yet to be formally implemented, according to Neal Clark, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
“UTVs are built for one reason, which is off-road use. That is the purpose for the existence of these machines,” Clark said. “They’re loud and obnoxious and because of that they’re completely contrary to the reasons that people travel from across the globe and across the country to visit national parks.”