Grand County, Moab unite against plan to allow ORVs in Utah’s national parks

In this May 2013 photo, mountain bikers near the end of a 75-mile trip as they climb Mineral Bottom Road after riding the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. Street legal off-road vehicles would be allowed on this and other roads in Utah's five national parks under a directive issued by the National Park Service's regional office. Grand County's elected leaders on Tuesday passed a joint resolution with Moab and Castle Valley opposing the rule that would allow ORVs in the parks. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Elected leaders in southern Utah’s Grand County passed a resolution Tuesday imploring the National Park Service to reconsider its recent directive to Utah park managers to accommodate “street legal” off-road vehicles on park roads.

Allowing ORVs in parks would have severe negative impacts on visitors’ experience and “is incompatible with resource and wildlife protection,” according to the resolution signed Tuesday by Grand County Council Chairman Evan Clapper, Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus and Castle Valley Mayor Jazmine Duncan.

The measure was unanimously approved Tuesday at an emergency meeting of the councils’ of Grand County and the two municipalities, which serve as gateways to Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

These two parks would be among those most affected by the Sept. 24 memo from the agency’s acting regional director, Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, ordering all 12 Utah park units to allow ORVs on roads open to conventional motor vehicles by Nov. 1.

“If we allow them in the park, we will fundamentally alter the experience of all visitors to the backcountry roads in our parks here,” Moab resident Michael Grandstaff told the council members. “We are so lucky to have those. Most parks don’t have those types of dirt access roads.”

The park service could not make an official immediately available Tuesday to respond to the resolution but hinted that the policy position staked out in the memo may not be final.

“We are working through the process and are hoping to have more information available soon,” said Vanessa Lacayo, a spokeswoman in the Intermountain regional office in Denver.

Across the country, off-road vehicles — like ATV quad-runners and UTV side-by-sides — are generally barred from national parks. But a Utah law enacted in 2008, and amended several times since, throws a curveball into that prohibition by authorizing all street-legal machines to travel public highways and roads.

“Given this change in state law, the park closures in place make an activity that is generally legal in the state of Utah illegal on NPS park roads within Utah,” the memo states. “Based on advice from [Interior’s] Office of the Solicitor, and to implement a consistent legally defensible approach to street-legal ORV policy across Utah, we are considering the closure of park roads in the state of Utah to ORVs to be highly controversial.”

The Sept. 24 memo requires the Utah parks to remove ORV prohibitions, while preserving a strict ban on off-road use. This means visitors would be able to drive utility terrain vehicles — which are often sold with the safety features that make them street legal — into Utah’s “Mighty 5” (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion) as well as Dinosaur National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area as long as they stay on the roads. Utah’s national park units would have up to 227 miles of paved and 487 miles of unpaved roads open to ORVs.

The rule also applies to smaller park units, such as Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge and Timpanogos Cave national monuments and Golden Spike National Historical Park, but they feature only short road segments. It does not apply to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which are not administered by the park service.

The memo indicated the service will establish a team to help the superintendents with “the assistance, including the guidance on messaging, to meet this directive.”

Many Grand County leaders and business owners said they are alarmed by the prospect of these vehicles driving on paved access roads and unpaved back roads like those on Canyonlands’ famed White Rim and Needles District and Arches’ rugged entry points from Salt Valley and Willow Springs.

Tuesday’s joint resolution notes that annual park visitation to Arches has soared by 80% to 1.6 million since 2008 and by 59% to 730,000 at Canyonlands, leading to congestion that is the subject of an ongoing management planning process.

The joint resolution urges that ORVs not be allowed into these parks until after existing congestion and its negative impacts on visitor experience have been addressed.

ORV access abounds immediately outside these two parks on 1.8 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management’s Moab Field Office, the resolution notes. These lands contain nearly 4,000 miles of roads and trails open to ORVs. There is even more land and roads available to ORV riders on nearby state and Forest Service land.

Pressure for allowing ORVs into parks came in the form of letters to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt from two Utah off-roading advocacy groups and state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding. They argue the Utah parks illegally “discriminate” against ORVs by arbitrarily favoring Jeeps, four-wheel-drive pickups, dirt bikes and other motor vehicles capable of going off road.

That sentiment was echoed by Moab motorized tour operator Kent Green, the only member of the public to speak against Tuesday’s resolution.

“You ought to give the OHV community a chance to express their opinion,” Green told the councils. “You are not speaking for all Moab residents, only a few. Our parks are national treasures, but there is a discrimination issue that is something you are going to have to fight uphill all the way.”

Home to miles of scenic back roads in Cathedral Valley and along the Burr Trail and Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef is another Utah national park that could become an ORV magnet. Wayne County's elected leaders have voiced support for the rule change.

With its crushing influx of tourists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts, Grand County is in a much different position than sleepy Wayne County.

Through the years, Moab’s outdoor recreational community has worked out trail plans that segregate motorized and nonmotorized uses in ways that work to everyone’s benefit and minimize conflict, according to Ashley Korenblat, a cycling tour operator. Her Moab company holds a concession to lead trips on the 80-mile White Rim road that tracks along the Colorado and Green rivers.

Korenblat, who fears UTV access could ruin the White Rim as a cycling destination, and other critics say the new ORV rule would upset a delicate balance among competing users that has been achieved for this outdoor haven.

“There has been no demand for additional off-road vehicle uses in the national parks and monuments located in the Southeast Utah group,” the joint resolution states. “NPS, in directing superintendents to allow this new use ... without the proper compliance and environmental review including public input, has violated its own policies, undermined this important and successful process, and created controversy where there is currently no controversy.”

The park service directive, however, contends that excluding ORVs from the Utah parks is “highly controversial” and maintains that prohibitions should be implemented only after formal rule-making on a case-by-case basis.

That’s completely backward, according to the joint resolution drafted by Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan. She called the directive “procedurally flawed, meaning illegal,” under both federal law and park service management policies.

The move to lift the ORV ban is far more controversial than forbidding the machines in the parks, she argued. And they should be allowed only on specific roads after a public process and a careful analysis of potential impacts.

The Utah parks’ ORV bans all stem from rules their superintendents developed after formal determinations that this use poses unacceptable risks to the very resources their parks were established to preserve for future generations. These determinations noted ORVs are built to travel off road, and it would be difficult if not impossible for rangers to ensure they don’t stray into fragile desert.