Rep. John Curtis says he would seek to curtail OHVs in national parks if locals are united in opposition

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, speaks with Grand County Council Chairman Evan Clapper after a special meeting in Moab on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019.

Moab • The congressman representing the southeast Utah district containing Canyonlands and Arches national parks says he would attempt to head off a new policy allowing off-road vehicles in parks if he finds that local leaders are united in opposition to it.

During a meeting Tuesday with members of the Moab City Council and Grand County Council, Republican U.S. Rep. John Curtis did not state his opinion on the recent National Park Service decision to allow OHVs on park roads beginning Nov. 1. But he did say he would press opposition — if that reflects a consensus view.

Curtis told the group that he only learned of the rule change a few days ago, adding, “I was as surprised by it as all of you were.”

He urged elected officials from Moab, Grand County and Castle Valley, who were at the meeting, to pass formal resolutions stating their positions on the matter.

“To the extent that you can speak as one voice, it will be far more powerful,” Curtis said. “It gives me the authority to speak on your behalf [to decision-makers in the Interior Department] instead of just guessing where the consensus is.”

After the meeting, Curtis told The Salt Lake Tribune, “You heard me encourage them to speak as one voice as a community, and hopefully we can do that.

"That’ll make it easier for me to go to work for them. I want to represent the community on this issue. It doesn’t matter what John [Curtis] wants.”

It wasn’t clear if Curtis was talking just about Moab and Grand County or implying broader agreement across his 3rd Congressional District, which runs from San Juan County through Grand, Emery, Carbon, Wasatch and part of Utah County in its northern portion.

Among vocal supporters of the new policy is state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, whose district includes parts of Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks.

“I applaud Superintendent [Palmer] Jenkins for taking action. The UTV community is an important group of people who do not deserve to be denigrated by progressives with an agenda,” Lyman said in a recent Facebook post. “It is time to stop pandering to lying, accusing special interest groups, and simply follow the rules.”

The OHV order, which came down from Jenkins, the park service’s acting Intermountain regional director, in late September, has sparked opposition from conservation groups and park managers.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Kate Cannon, a veteran park service official who oversees Arches and Canyonlands, told Curtis that park administrators decided not to allow OHVs in Utah’s national parks after the passage of a 2008 state law that allowed street-legal off-road vehicles on public highways.

“We felt that would be inappropriate in national parks because of the propensity of those vehicles — especially at that time — to go off road but also because of the noise they produce, which may not be appropriate in a national park setting,” Cannon said.

“It continues to be our opinion that the use of those vehicles in the parks would be detrimental to the experience of visitors,” Cannon continued.

In all, 12 park units across the state could be affected, including up to 227 miles of paved roads and 487 miles of unpaved roads.

Evan Clapper, chairman of the Grand County Council, told The Tribune that Grand County hasn’t yet passed a resolution on the issue, but would likely weigh in one way or the other next week.

“Our community has a strong voice regarding OHVs, and we’re really invested in ensuring all visitors to the area have a great experience,” he said.

Clapper went on to suggest that the OHV decision could be best made by park administrators within the state. “Kate Cannon has done a great job managing parks here, and I have a lot of faith in her,” he said. “I’d like to see those decisions be more local.”

Two off-roading groups petitioned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to lift the OHV ban for Utah parks in July. Advocates for the change, including UTV Utah, have argued that the prohibition “discriminates” against the owners off-road vehicles, noting parks are open to loud motorcycles and large trucks.

UTV Utah President Bud Bruening told The Tribune in an earlier interview that OHV riders believe the new policy would be more fair than the current OHV ban that seems to clash with the parks openness to motorcycles, large trucks and other loud vehicles.

“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.

Neal Clark, Wildlands Program Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told The Tribune the policy change doesn’t make sense. “It’s obvious that OHVs are incompatible with the park values," he said. "There’s no way you can not have some illegal use when you allow OHVs into any area.”