Sen. Mike Lee’s antipathy to our public lands knows no bounds. He seems to angle constantly for new ways to circumvent any management that prioritizes conservation in these cherished places.
His latest attack on Utah national parks is a Senate bill that would open virtually every road in Capitol Reef National Park to off-highway vehicles. Lee has introduced a companion bill that would allow state OHV laws to take precedence over park management in all National Park Service areas, potentially bringing these noisy street-legal machines to every park.
This reversal of longstanding National Park Service policy — a ban that began with an executive order from President Nixon in 1972 — would come without any environmental analysis. Without public input. Without any real discussion.
Off-highway vehicles have thousands of miles of open roads and trails to explore outside of national parks. Lee’s Capitol Reef bill would welcome them where they don’t belong. On Utah Highway 24 along the Fremont River, OHVs would slow traffic. On the park’s backcountry routes, noise levels from ATVs and even more powerful utility-terrain-vehicles would ramp up for both visitors and wildlife. Off-highway vehicles would degrade the park experience for everyone.
Most visitors are respectful and thrilled to be at Capitol Reef. Families experience rare quiet and tranquility on short hikes to Hickman Bridge, Grand Wash and into the stunning side canyons accessed from Notom Road and the Burr Trail. We revel in the echoing craaack of a raven or cascading melody of a canyon wren’s call ringing between slickrock cliffs. Imagine these rejuvenating experiences jolted by waves of mechanized roars — for the revving from exposed motors on ATVs and UTVs carries much farther than engine noise from standard vehicles.
The park manages Capitol Reef backcountry for remoteness, “with its wilderness qualities preserved.” At each step further into park backcountry, off-highway vehicles become more problematic. Even with a majority of law-abiding riders, some will go off-road. They just will. Their vehicles are designed for this exact purpose.
And in Capitol Reef’s considerable backcountry, outlaw riders would likely never see a uniformed ranger to hold them accountable. Like all underfunded national parks and monuments, staffing does not allow for constant patrolling to apprehend and ticket wrongdoers.
For example, to reach the iconic Temples of the Sun and Moon in the north district of the park, you must drive nearly 30 miles beyond pavement. Each mile takes visitors into quieter and quieter country on back roads that wind through badlands and across sandy flats. No guardrails, no barriers to keep vehicles on designated roads. Off-highway vehicles here would essentially be unsupervised.
An OHV driver doesn’t see the wound they leave when taking a spin into untouched desert. They see only adventure. Off-road, these vehicles create a fretwork of tracks that fragments habitat and destroys subtle evidence of cultural resources. Even on dirt roads, their faster speed and narrower tires erode more than a full-sized four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Canyon country soils deepen by just a centimeter every thousand years. A nondescript but critical crust of living microorganisms protects the surface from erosion. Flatten this biocrust and you release clouds of dust and disrupt a delicate network of life. Sever these threads holding the land together, and the ecosystem begins to unravel.
A ruling from the previous administration would have allowed OHVs on roads in all five Utah national parks. This 2019 ruling met a buzzsaw of resistance and was quickly reversed. I suspect Senator Lee believes he can dodge similar outrage by focusing solely on Capitol Reef. Perhaps he thinks he’ll avoid the fierce advocates for quiet recreation and conservation who would rise up in numbers to defend Arches, Canyonlands, or Zion. Moab residents are already irate about UTV rentals streaming through neighborhoods on their way out of town. Torrey — Capitol Reef’s gateway community — lacks the activist clout of Moab or Springdale.
Capitol Reef may once have been Utah’s “forgotten park.” But given the packed restaurants and motels in Torrey in recent post-quarantine months, the jammed trailhead parking areas along Highway 24, and dispersed campers overflowing onto surrounding Forest Service and BLM land, Capitol Reef is forgotten no more.
If you love this remarkable park, join the National Park Service in opposing these bills. Tell our senators why OHVs have no place here.
Capitol Reef is a place to slow down, not speed up. To revel in quiet, not reach for ear plugs. To share the land with tenderness and restraint. To remember that these are Native lands, and that the Paiute, Ute, Navajo, and Pueblo people still cherish these lost homelands.
Lee disrespects national park values with these twin bills. His misguided proposals should be left to wither in committee and die.
Stephen Trimble worked as a seasonal ranger in Capitol Reef National Park in the 1970s. He now serves on the board of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. His latest book is “The Capitol Reef Reader.”