Opinion: Off-road advocates are not the oppressed

The overly aggressive “defend your ground” posturing of state and national ORV advocacy groups has resulted in a much-deserved backlash from the majority of the recreating public.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Several off-road utility terrain vehicles (UTVs) motor towards the Fins & Things 4x4 Trail at the Sand Flats Recreation Area trail, located just 4 miles from downtown Moab, Feb. 19, 2021.

A recent article featured assertions of discrimination against the motorized community and discussed the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recent decision to close some off-road vehicle (ORV) routes in the Labyrinth Canyon area outside of Moab. In addition to lacking any meaningful context for the BLM’s decision, the woe-is-us piece was completely absent of countervailing perspectives — nothing about the protection of wild places, wildlife, solitude or natural soundscapes; nothing about balancing uses so that motorized recreation doesn’t continue to dominate the landscape; and nothing about the natural world existing for more than one’s own self-interested recreational pursuit.

Over the past 40 years, I have been employed at various times as a wildlife biologist, park ranger, guide and environmental advocate. I am also a hiker, mountain biker, four-wheeler, car camper, desert rat and general lover of the freedom found in the Utah backcountry. I celebrated the BLM’s decision to close 317 miles of motorized routes in the Labyrinth Canyon area late last year.

This decision still allows for ORV use on more than 800 miles of routes in the 300,000-acre Labyrinth Canyon landscape and thousands of miles of routes in the Moab area. BLM’s decision seeks to restore much-needed balance to this high-use, high-visitation area and provides a model for other BLM travel plans moving forward--showing other BLM offices that it is possible to place reasonable restrictions on motorized use, a use with an outsized impact on every other public land resource and value, and one that has dominated our public lands for far too long.

Let’s look back at how BLM arrived at this decision. In the 1990s and early 2000s (at a time with far less motorized recreation), it was legal to drive cross-country on public lands. You could ride wherever you wanted and face no consequences for your actions. Eventually, BLM acknowledged the harm that rampant and growing ORV use was causing and began to prohibit cross-country use (with the exception of designated “open” areas). After a 2008 plan favoring motorized use above all others was deemed illegal, years of planning led to the latest Labyrinth Canyon plan. The Moab BLM has finally taken seriously its legal obligation to “minimize” the impact of motorized use on other public land resources, including wildlife, cultural resources and conflicts with non-motorized users.

Since the vast majority of Moab visitors and residents do not engage in motorized recreation (beyond getting to a trailhead or campsite), it makes sound economic sense to protect non-motorized recreational opportunities. This is one of many reasons BLM’s decision was supported by the Grand County Commission. Grand County’s most valuable asset is its natural landscape, and the reality is that unmanaged motorized recreation risks pushing out anyone who doesn’t appreciate constant noise and dust. Ask any Moabite and I almost guarantee they know someone who doesn’t come here anymore to visit because of the overwhelming presence of motorized recreation.

Rather than a self-centered focus on their perceived losses, it would go a long way for off-roaders to start owning up to the outsized impact of their sport on public lands, not to mention on the Moab community itself. The motorized community cannot bring itself to acknowledge this obvious fact. Instead, they attempt to gaslight about how it’s only “a few bad apples” when, in reality, the Moab experience indicates it’s more likely to be a few good apples trying their best to mitigate the damage that is being caused by the rest. Reckless and destructive driving and in-your-face rude behavior have seemingly become the norm, not the exception.

But right now, most ORV advocates seem to be stuck in the blame game, feeling that they are somehow the oppressed. They are suing Moab for placing restrictions on UTV rentals, a more than reasonable effort to keep our town liveable for locals. And they are suing over the routes closed in the Labyrinth plan, ignoring the thousands of miles of routes in the Moab area that are still available for their use (and tens of thousands of miles available on BLM lands throughout Utah).

To date, the overly aggressive “defend your ground” posturing of state and national ORV advocacy groups has resulted in a much-deserved backlash from the majority of the recreating public. That backlash will continue until they’re willing to come to terms with the fact that balance is needed.

The ball is in the Moab off-road community’s court. If the local motorized community stays the course and continues to align with state and national ORV groups, I predict there will be a lot more route closures to come. What will they choose?

Danny Kent

Danny Kent is a 40 year Moab resident protecting and enjoying public lands as a field biologist, guide, teacher and writer.

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