Feds shift gears, now say ORVs won’t be allowed in Utah’s national parks; eco-advocates applaud

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo)In this May 2013 photo, mountain bikers near the end of their 75-mile trip as they make the steep climb on the Mineral Bottom Road after riding the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park.

To cheers from environmentalists and sneers from off-road enthusiasts, the National Park Service reversed direction Friday, announcing that utility terrain vehicles will not be allowed on park roads in Utah after all.

On Sept. 24, the service’s regional office in Denver directed Utah park superintendents to remove off-road vehicle bans from their rules effective Nov. 1, opening the door for “street legal” versions of UTVs to enter Utah parks and roam backroads like those on Canyonlands’ White Rim and Needles District.

The logic behind that earlier move was founded on a Utah law that allows street-legal ORVs on most public roads, streets and highways in the state. The Sept. 24 directive concluded the Utah parks’ ORV bans lacked “legal foundation” since they bar ORVs from roads that are open to conventional motor vehicles, motorcycles and four-by-four trucks.

Last month’s order was applauded by rural Utah political leaders and UTV advocates, who complained that the parks’ ORV prohibitions are “discriminatory” and “arbitrary,” even though ORVs are not allowed in almost any of the National Park Service’s 419 units across the country.

On Friday, though, the park service rescinded that directive.

“After further consultation between the National Park Service and the Department of Interior, including the Secretary of the Interior, the NPS today directed that all ORV closures at national park sites in Utah currently in place will remain in effect,” the service said in a news release.

State Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who has tangled with the federal government repeatedly over public-land use, said Friday he was “disappointed and angry” by the rule reversal. Lyman had written a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, urging Utah’s national parks to have the same rules as the state governing access of off-road vehicles.

Interior’s directive reflected Lyman’s position, but it drew fire from environmentalists, legal scholars and park advocates who argued such a major policy shift should be implemented only after a thorough public vetting. Advocates accused the park service of outsourcing its road-use policymaking to Utah officials to the detriment of the resources the parks were established to protect.

Superintendent Kate Cannon, who oversees Canyonlands and Arches National parks in southeastern Utah, had pushed back against the now-scrapped directive, in essence reaffirming her parks’ ORV bans. She responded to it with an eight-page memo detailing the potential damage ORVs can cause to dirt roads and fragile desert soils if they travel illegally off road, as well as their potential to disrupt the park experience and clog traffic for other visitors.

Cannon’s resistance won the support of the Grand County, Moab and Castle Valley councils, which passed a joint resolution against lifting the ORV ban in national park units absent a robust public process and environmental review.

“Park advocates and community leaders from across Utah and beyond recently came together and spoke with one voice, in the name of maintaining such protections surrounding off-road vehicle use," said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The Interior secretary and park service clearly agree and are continuing the more than centurylong mission of protecting unique and fragile resources that this generation, our children and grandchildren will enjoy.”

Cannon’s memo argued that ORVs are specifically designed to travel off road, which would have remained strictly forbidden in national parks. Allowing them onto remote backroads would create huge enforcement challenges, she warned, adding that thousands of miles of routes already are open to ORVs on public lands surrounding Arches and Canyonlands.

“Trying to shoehorn [ORV] use into the parks and monuments didn’t make sense and inevitably would have resulted in damage to the very things that make these places so remarkable and what visitors come to experience,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “I’m grateful they changed their mind. They are doing the right thing.”

Lyman, who as a San Juan County commissioner served a short jail stint for organizing an ATV-mounted protest on closed federal land, saw the question through a much different lens.

Allowing off-road vehicles in national parks, Lyman said, is “a symptom of a much bigger debate that should be had.” The main issue, he added, is “the amount of jurisdiction that the federal government feels that they have in Utah, and if they’re bound by any laws, or if they are just a law unto themselves.”

Going forward, Lyman said, “my approach would be to see if Utah has an appetite to assert their existence. I hope they do. I’m always surprised at how willing people are to give away their legal standing in these situations.”

Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this story.