Here’s how off-road vehicles will soon be restricted in Glen Canyon

The National Park Service must revise its rules for off-road vehicles in the area after reaching a settlement with conservation nonprofits.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tourists gather at Lone Rock Beach near Page, Ariz. in 2023. After a recent settlement of two cases concerning off-road vehicle use in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the National Park Service must determine a specific lake elevation at which Lake Powell's shorelines, like at Lone Rock Beach, are open or closed to motorized vehicles.

Visitors have used motorized vehicles to experience the red rocks of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area since it was established. But that mobility has a cost, according to environmentalists, to the landscape itself.

Thanks to a recent settlement, the National Park Service must now revise its rules for off-road vehicles to restrict them within the protected area.

In 2021, the NPS published a rule expanding off-road vehicle use throughout the national recreation area. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and the National Parks Conservation Association, both environmental nonprofits, sued the agency over the rule.

The nonprofits argued that off-road vehicles caused water pollution, soil erosion, wildlife disturbances, habitat destruction and conflicts between motorized and nonmotorized recreators. The 2021 rule, according to the nonprofits, threatened to “degrade and permanently damage the wild lands within Glen Canyon.”

On April 10, the National Park Service reached a settlement with the nonprofits. The revised final rule will restrict motorized use on Lake Powell’s shorelines and prohibit off-road vehicle use in a portion of the Orange Cliffs Special Management Unit. The settlement does not impact recreation on Lake Powell.

“We hope that this new final rule will result in a better balance between off-road vehicle use and the opportunities to seek solace and primitive recreation,” said Hanna Larsen, a staff attorney for the SUWA. “Having a better balance of these different types of recreation better suits the purpose of the recreation area.”

Some off-road vehicle users find the settlement terms unfair. “Glen Canyon is a national recreation area,” said Ben Burr, executive director for the BlueRibbon Coalition, an off-roading and recreation advocacy nonprofit. “It should be managed for recreation.”

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area spans 1.25 million acres in northern Arizona and southeastern Utah. About 13% of that acreage is covered by Lake Powell, but as the reservoir shrinks due to climate change, more land emerges.

Environmentalists have voiced concerns that Lake Powell’s expanding shorelines would become play areas for off-road vehicles. The revised rule will respond by setting specific elevations at which shorelines are open or closed to motorized use.

The revised rule also will clarify that off-road vehicles can only be used to travel to a shoreline and back, like for putting watercraft in the lake, in shoreline areas. One exception is in the Lone Rock Beach Play Area, which is designated for off-road vehicle use.

The nonprofits also took issue with a provision in the 2021 rule that allowed off-road vehicles in the Orange Cliffs Special Management Unit, which borders Canyonlands National Park.

The settlement requires the NPS to prohibit off-road vehicle use on an 8-mile portion of the Poison Springs Loop within the Orange Cliffs.

“That’s a highly valuable route that is already used by all kinds of motorized users,” Burr said. “As long as they’re following the rules and there aren’t abundant instances of negative impacts, I think they should still be open for use. That’s what we’ll be advocating for.”

The NPS must publish the revised rule no later than Jan. 10, 2025. There will be a 60-day public comment period before the revised rule is finalized.