Opinion: ATVs are spoiling Utah’s canyon country

The driver behind the wheel of a RZR zipping through a canyon seems more enamored with the power of their engine or the music blaring through their speakers than the landscape flying past their open window.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) An off-road utility terrain vehicle (UTV) eases up Hell's Revenge 4x4 Trail at the Sand Flats Recreation Area trail, located just 4 miles from downtown Moab, Feb. 19, 2021.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Utah’s canyon country you will well remember the majesty of the martian landscape. The squawk of the raven bouncing off the canyon walls that glow crimson and gold in the morning sun. Or the profound silence found deep into a side canyon. A silence so absolute you can hear the wingbeat of a raven soaring hundreds of yards overhead.

Recently, a new sound may have become more familiar to you. The growl of engines and spinning tires as packs of ATVs swarm over the landscape.

At the head of the pack, the infamous RZR. A RZR, or ‘Razor’ is a four-wheeled off road vehicle designed for use, “on the toughest trails, from mountain passes to desert dunes and everything in between.” In places like the San Rafael Swell, these vehicles are meant to avoid the “everything in between” and keep to designated ATV trails. However, it is not uncommon to see them veering off the path leaving a trail of decapitated cacti and scarred earth in their wake.

On my last visit to the San Rafael Swell, I was enjoying my morning coffee and the first rays of sunshine when a caravan of these snarling machines blew past my campsite sending the wildlife scurrying for their dens and leaving a fine coating of dust on my mug.

Famed writer and radical environmentalist Edward Abbey believed that access to our national parks and wild places should be restricted to those aesthetic voyagers willing to brave the journey on foot or bicycle. “A man on foot, on horse-back or on bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourist can in a hundred miles,” he wrote.

In many ways, I agree with Abbey. The driver behind the wheel of a RZR zipping through a canyon seems more enamored with the power of their engine or the music blaring through their speakers than the landscape flying past their open window.

I am skeptical, however, of denying people access to portions of our beautiful state based on the way I perceive them to be enjoying it. It seems an impossible and unjust proposition to completely restrict so many thousands of ATV users from areas that they may have been visiting for decades. Nonetheless, it remains an unavoidable fact that the ubiquity of ATVs in Utah’s canyon country is spoiling the peace and tranquility that non-motorized visitors have come to enjoy.

One possible solution to the problem has already been implemented in other wild areas in Utah. In Salt Lake City’s City Creek Canyon for example, motorized vehicle access is restricted to utility vehicles and those who have reserved a day-use picnic area. Moreover, cyclists are only allowed in the canyon on even numbered days of the year. These restrictions keep cyclists and pedestrians safe, but they also preserve the peace and tranquility of the canyon that would be otherwise disrupted if the road were constantly clogged with vehicles.

In the canyon country, ATV access could be allowed on a rotating weekly basis. This way ATV enthusiasts could still enjoy their hobby and campers and bikers can wander the canyons unmolested by the sounds of roaring motors and screeching tires.

Another solution is to make ATV use contingent upon obtaining a permit. This would allow the state to regulate how many of these machines may visit a given area while providing greater capability to police irresponsible riders. The installation of trail cameras in highly trafficked areas would also go a long way to catching drivers who travel off trail and damage the fragile ecosystem.

Peace, quiet and the majesty of nature are valuable resources in our modern world. If we don’t act now, we risk allowing one of the last bastions of these precious resources to become just like the bustling cities that so many of us are trying to escape.

Sam Foglesong

Samuel Foglesong is a lifelong Utah resident who has been visiting Utah’s Canyon Country since he was a baby. He is an avid reader and writer of all things pertaining to North America’s wild places.

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