Capitol Reef National Park in Southern Utah receives more than 1.2 million visitors per year, but only a tiny fraction make it down to the park’s south end along the spectacular Waterpocket Fold. This section is more austere than the busy area along Highway 24, and it’s far quieter as a result. Even during peak season, you can linger by the dirt road here for hours without seeing another vehicle.
That’s likely to change Nov. 1, when the National Park Service is slated to begin allowing off-highway vehicles, or OHVs, to use roads in national park service units in Utah. The nation’s other national parks, including Joshua Tree National Park, will remain off-limits to the vehicles.
Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, the agency’s acting intermountain regional director (yes, another “acting” official in the Trump Interior Department) ordered the change in late September without seeking public comment. The order was not illegal—it’s an administrative decision—but it is unusual. The OHV plan for Glen Canyon Recreation Area, for example, took the Park Service nine years to craft. Jenkins’ recent order is purportedly intended to “align” the parks with Utah law, which allows “street-legal” OHVs on many public roads. But it appears to be another instance of the Trump administration bending to industry and Utah’s conservative politicians at the expense of some of the last OHV-free places in the West.
To understand how this might change the parks, just look at San Juan County, Colorado, its rugged mountains crisscrossed with hundreds of miles of roads left from more than a century of mining.
In the early 2000s, San Juan County’s leaders moved to open virtually all county roads to OHVs, relying on arguments similar to those bandied about by advocates today: Those roads were already traveled by thousands of vehicles each summer; OHV riders would be subject to the same traffic laws as other cars; they wouldn’t be allowed to go off-road; and “quiet users” could escape the uptick in traffic, noise, dust and other impacts by simply getting a half-mile or so away from the road.
Since then, traffic hasn’t just ticked up on San Juan County’s backroads—it has exploded, and statistics indicate that most of the growth has consisted of OHVs. A traffic count done last year found that nearly 159,000 vehicles, about half of them OHVs, entered the Alpine Loop, the network of backcountry roads that include San Juan County’s roads.
It’s been good for the economy, but comes at a cost. Law-enforcement officers are spending more time trying to keep people on designated routes and in compliance with traffic laws. The new “side-by-sides,” or UTVs, are built to go much faster than a highway-ready SUV on rugged terrain, and they often do. OHV crashes, often resulting in serious injury, are not uncommon. And each summer, some riders surrender to the temptation to illegally leave the road and rip across the tundra, causing irreversible damage. These vehicles, after all, were designed to go off road. Unlike regular vehicles, OHVs tend to travel in herds, spewing exhaust and kicking up dust, their collective buzzing reaching far beyond the roads on which they travel, making it more difficult to escape the mechanized din.
It’s likely the same phenomenon would occur in national parks that allow OHVs. Traffic will burgeon in parks that are already grappling with overcrowding and traffic jams. The less-visited backcountry areas, however, will be hit hardest. OHVs will be able to kick up clouds of dust on the now-quiet roads of Canyonlands’ Maze District and buzz past mountain bikers on the White Rim Trail. And they’ll soon be able to hook up with the Burr Trail on the aforementioned road through Capitol Reef’s southern end, where there’s very little to stop bad actors from careening across the fragile cryptobiotic soil.
So why would Jenkins allow such a thing? Because the industry and Utah’s politicians asked for it, claiming that the park’s ban amounted to discrimination. In July, motorized access groups wrote to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, demanding that he drop the ban. Utah State Rep. Phil Lyman, who led an OHV protest ride down a road closed to motorized vehicles in 2014, followed with a similar letter: “It offends me that … the National Park Service has adopted regulations that discriminate against OHV owners.” That sentiment was echoed in an Outside magazine op-ed by Wes Siler, who said that the OHV ban was a form of “gatekeeping,” of pushing out the “kind of people who ride ATVs.”
Extend that logic to other public-lands regulations, and its absurdity becomes apparent. Mountain bikes are banned from wilderness areas, for example, not because anyone wants to keep a certain “kind of people” off the trails, but because of the machines’ impacts on “untrammeled” lands. The same goes for OHVs in the parks.
Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group of the National Park Service, was quick to respond to Jenkins’ order, writing, in part, “The use on park roads of OHVs … poses a significant risk to park resources and values which cannot be appropriately mitigated, and which cannot be sustained without causing unacceptable impacts. The use of such vehicles is, therefore, not consistent with the protection of the parks and monuments.”
Opening the parks to these vehicles is also not necessary. Thousands of miles of designated OHV routes snake their way across the millions of acres of public lands surrounding Utah’s national parks. Isn’t that enough?
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News, where this piece first appeared. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.