Park managers balk at plan to let ORVs in Utah national parks

(Erin Alberty | Tribune file photo) The Burr Trail switchbacks in Capitol Reef National Park is pictured Oct. 4, 2015.

Opposition is building against the National Park Service’s push to allow off-road vehicles on Utah’s park roads, much of it coming from retired and current park managers who contend these vehicles pose too great a risk to scenic treasures and visitor enjoyment.

Across most of the nation’s 419-unit park system, ORVs, including all-terrain vehicles and utility task vehicles, are not allowed. But an 11-year-old Utah law has opened the door for “street legal” ORVs on roads inside the state’s “Mighty 5” parks, as well as Dinosaur National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and smaller park units in Utah.

In late September, the park service's acting Intermountain regional director instructed Utah park superintendents to "align" their road-access policies by Nov. 1 with state law, which allows ORVs on most roads that are open to automobiles as long as they are registered and equipped with all the safety features required for street use.

Critics contend such a move carries a huge potential impact and cannot legally proceed without an environmental analysis and a public process.

On Sept. 26, the superintendent who oversees Utah's Southeast group responded with a memo that doubles down on her previous determination that ORVs present a new use that cannot be squared with the park service's mission to conserve park resources and cultivate a quality visitor experience.

“The propensity of these vehicles to be driven off-road even where prohibited is well established in research,” wrote Kate Cannon, a veteran park service official who oversees Arches and Canyonlands. The park service will continue to strictly prohibit off-road use, but Cannon fears that it would be impossible for rangers to properly enforce that if ORVs are allowed in her parks.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Her seven-page memo spells out a strongly worded rationale for why the ORV prohibition should be continued, highlighting the noise, dust, traffic hazards and erosion that these vehicles would bring.

The park service declined to immediately release its written directive regarding ORV use in Utah parks, insisting it should be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Nor did it make any officials available to explain how the directive would be implemented. According to spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo, up to 227 miles of paved roads and 487 miles of unpaved roads in 12 park units could be affected.

UTV Utah was one of two off-roading groups that petitioned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in July to lift the ORV ban for Utah parks. The park service’s recent directive came as a welcome surprise to UTV Utah President Bud Bruening. He contends the ORV prohibition “discriminates” against the owners of these vehicles, noting parks are open to loud motorcycles and large trucks.

“All of these are county and state roads. When we pay our registration fees, we are paying for the roads to be built and maintained,” Bruening said. “We would like to be treated the same way” as other vehicle operators.

He dismissed Cannon’s concerns as her “personal opinions.”

“She doesn’t want you there. They will allow an 18-wheeler into the park. These machines we drive weigh a fraction of these other vehicles,” Bruening said. “They don’t dig into the dirt like a Jeep. ... Once it calms down, people will realize we are just like everybody else. Our machines are more quiet than a Harley-Davidson [motorcycle] and you see Harleys ride through parks all the time.”

He said that his group’s 14,000 members can be trusted to be responsible park users.

“We are making sure they are talking about staying on roads and picking up after themselves,” Bruening said. “There are going to be some bad apples. We can’t control everybody, but we can educate riders.”

Many observers argue the parks must undertake a thorough analysis before signing off on a new park use, especially one that carries the potential to disturb other visitors and degrade the values the parks were set aside to protect.

"This concept of making sure NPS policies are consistent with state law doesn't take into account that these park units have national significance. They are the country's most special places," said Phil Francis, a retired superintendent who heads the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks. "They have to be consistent with making sure they are left unimpaired for future generations. By following state law, we can't meet that goal as required by Congress."

The park service last year completed a full environmental impact statement before revising a travel plan that allows ORVs in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Critics wonder why the service invested so much effort to study ORV riding there, yet now plans to allow this activity on all public roads in Utah parks with no study at all.

“In this desert environment, one track can last 50 to 100 years,” warned Philip Brueck, a park service retiree who was the southeast Utah deputy superintendent in the 1990s and helped draft Canyonlands’ backcountry management plan.

That plan aimed to preserve a quiet experience in Canyonlands’ Maze and Needles districts. Brueck fears UTV riding could undermine much of what that plan sought to accomplish.

“Canyonlands has some of the greatest and most remote wilderness in the U.S., but it is some of the most accessible because of the improved road system,” Brueck said. “The question has to be asked: Why does the public need an additional level of use in there.”

The Cannon memo notes there are thousands of miles to ride ORVs immediately outside national parks on public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

ATV manufacturers, who generally support increased access, oppose allowing their machines’ use on roads, according to the trade group Special Vehicle Institute of America.

Under Utah road rules, “street legal” vehicles must have two headlamps, two taillights, two brake lights, red reflection on the rear, a muffler and emission control, turn signals on the front and rear, brakes, horn, rearview mirrors, illuminated speedometers and seat belts. Drivers must wear eye protection if the vehicle lacks a full windshield.

Few ATVs — defined as off-highway vehicles that have a seat designed to be straddled and handlebars for steering — are so equipped.

UTVs, on the other hand, commonly are.

These powerful vehicles were climbing in popularity around the time Utah lawmakers passed a 2008 law allowing street-legal off-road vehicles on public highways. Equipped with side-by-side bucket seats and roll cages, UTVs are designed to travel at higher speeds over rugged surfaces.

According to Cannon’s memo, they produce far more noise than regular vehicles, up to 90 decibels at 50 feet. Besides disturbing other visitors, this noise could disrupt wildlife and degrade the wilderness qualities of the parks’ backcountry.

“Dust emissions will increase because ORVs target unpaved roads,” Cannon wrote, and because their “knobby” and “small-diameter” tires chew up the roads more quickly than standard four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Her memo celebrates Canyonlands and Arches' backcountry as a wild place, free from modern technology.

“Visitors have appreciated these parks for their traditional solitude, quiet and undeveloped experiences,” Cannon wrote. “Any use [of] ORVs will significantly alter the basic visitor experience that has endured for nearly 100 years of recreation.”