Laura Peterson: Where do ATVs belong on public lands?

The National Park Service’s (NPS) recent proposal to allow certain off-road vehicles in Utah’s National Parks thankfully provoked enough public outrage to force the NPS to reverse course and keep the longtime closure of park roads to off-road vehicles. The controversy — which sparked a necessary debate over the potential damage to Utah’s natural and cultural resources — highlights the danger of politically-motivated, short-sighted decision-making affecting our public lands.

The controversy also raises a broader question, however: where do off-road vehicles belong on our public lands?

The use of off-road vehicles — including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and utility task vehicles (UTVs) — has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. Today, more than 125,000 UTVs and ATVs are registered in Utah, including 27,000 street-legal machines. That figure doesn’t include the thousands of UTVs for rent across the state or the thousands more that come from out-of-state.

While these machines provide outdoor recreation for some, they can have a disproportionately large impact on public land resources and other recreationists. Off-road vehicles cause stream erosion and water pollution, dust and soil erosion, harassment of wildlife, destruction of habitat, damage to cultural sites, and increased conflicts between user groups. Because of the damage that motorized vehicles can inflict on sensitive resources, it’s critical that motorized vehicle use is carefully planned and reasonably controlled — not just in National Parks, but on all federal public lands in Utah.

The time for coming up with these plans is now. The Bureau of Land Management is currently in the midst of a planning process that will result in 13 new travel management plans covering more than 6 million acres of BLM-managed lands in eastern and southern Utah. These plans — to be completed over the next eight years — will determine where motorized vehicles are allowed in some of Utah’s most stunning and remote wild lands, such as the Dirty Devil, San Rafael Swell and Labyrinth Canyon.

These new travel plans are the result of SUWA and its conservation partners’ litigation of six travel plans released at the end of the George W. Bush administration. Those plans smothered Utah’s public lands with a dense spider web of thousands of miles of motorized routes, prioritizing off-road vehicles at the expense of Utah’s cultural and natural resources. Routes designated in the these plans cross directly through cultural sites considered sacred by Native Americans and bisect wildlife habitat valued by Utah’s hunters and non-hunters alike. The Bush-era plans also exacerbated conflict with non-motorized public lands users.

But in 2013, the federal courts found that those Bush-era travel plans violated the law by failing to minimize impacts to natural and cultural resources. Under the ensuing settlement agreement between the BLM, conservation organizations and off-road vehicle groups, the BLM is required to rewrite travel plans with more than motorized users in mind. Which brings us to this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The forthcoming travel plans are an opportunity to develop reasonable, manageable and forward-thinking blueprints that ensure public access while preserving the backcountry and minimizing damage. This new planning process gives the BLM a second chance to get things right, ensuring access to trailheads, scenic overlooks and recreation opportunities while protecting the very reason people want to drive to such remote places in the first place: to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of Utah’s unparalleled public lands.

Much has changed in the decade since the BLM released its flawed travel plans. Visitation to Utah has skyrocketed — fueled by the state of Utah’s advertising and the rise of social media — and shows no sign of diminishing. More people are seeking out new types of recreation as technology changes: today’s off-road vehicles are designed to go more places faster than ever before. We are also grappling with a climate crisis, bringing new challenges to Utah’s public land managers. Precisely because of these challenges, thoughtful and deliberate travel planning is critical.

The BLM’s new travel planning process presents an opportunity to shape the public’s experience of Utah’s public lands. Rather than viewing this process as a burden, the BLM should take advantage of this opportunity to protect our shared heritage and craft visionary plans that will endure for years to come. Utah’s wild places deserve no less.

Laura Peterson

Laura Peterson is an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.