Just one month after issuing a directive that would have opened roads within Utah’s national parks to “street-legal” off-road vehicles, the National Park Service (NPS) issued a statement withdrawing that order.
The NPS said that the policy reversal comes “after further consultation between the National Park Service and the Department of Interior, including the Secretary of the Interior.”
The initial memo, released on Sept. 24, directed Utah park superintendents to remove bans on off-road vehicles by Nov. 1. The directive had immediately attracted opposition, with conservation groups and local residents voicing concerns about noise, traffic and the possibility of drivers going off approved roads and causing damage.
“We are relieved that Secretary Bernhardt and the National Park Service rescinded the ludicrous direction to let off-road vehicles destroy our National Parks’ culturally sensitive landscapes, fragile soil crusts, opportunities for solitude, and further diminish air quality,” said Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter in a statement.
In the Sept. 24 memo, Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, acting director of the Intermountain Region, had directed all national parks within Utah to conform to state law, which accepts street-legal off-highway vehicles (also known as OHVs, a blanket term including both ATVs and UTVs) on roads where vehicles are permitted.
Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks (which comprises Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments) opposed the directive, asserting that individual park superintendents have the discretion to decide if areas should be closed to specific uses. The parks had long banned OHV use.
In an official memo issued on Sept. 26, Cannon also stated her position that the use of “OHVs, ATVs, and other motorized conveyances manufactured for recreational non-highway, off-road, or all-terrain travel poses a significant risk to park resources and values which cannot be appropriately mitigated.”
“There will be many members of the OHV community who will be disappointed to learn that the National Park Service has caved in to entrenched special interest groups to reverse their decision to allow street-legal OHVs onto the same park roads accessed by millions of other vehicles,” said Benjamin Burr in a statement to the Moab Sun News. Burr is policy director for the BlueRibbon Coalition, which advocates for inclusion of motorized uses of public lands.
Burr stated that he believed the policy reversal to be the result of “a coordinated public relations effort led by special interest groups, policy makers, elected officials, and the media establishment to publicly disparage OHV users.”
Utah State Representative Phil Lyman had previously written an open letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, stating that he felt the ban was “discriminatory, arbitrary, and capricious” and comparing it to the recent Department of the Interior directive allowing e-bikes wherever traditional bikes are permitted. In a post on Facebook, Lyman criticized Cannon, referring to “federally-employed bigots.”
However, Burr still has hopes to open the parks to OHV use through greater education, stating that his organization remains “committed to working with the National Park Service to identify and address their concerns and work cooperatively with decision-makers to ensure access for all to our National Parks.”
Some other OHV enthusiasts had a stronger reaction, angered by local officials who supported the ban in the parks.
“It’s time to act against Moab and their progressive City Council,” said Steven Hawkins, president of the Utah ATV Association, in a Facebook statement urging OHV riders to boycott the city and county.
On Oct. 15, the councils of Grand County, the town of Castle Valley and Moab passed a joint resolution stating, in part, that the local governments oppose allowing OHVs to travel roads in parks and monuments without environmental study and until existing traffic congestion is addressed.
At the meeting, Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus proposed examining the Utah state law at the heart of the controversy beyond the national parks. The mayor suggested discussing how the law, which allows some OHVs considered “street-legal” to be driven on public roads, could be amended to address noise regulation or other nuisance issues.
While Niehaus was careful to note that OHV users and business owners would be a part of the conversation, some off-highway enthusiasts like Hawkins clearly felt threatened.
“This is only their first step towards banning [OHVs] within city limits, and then from the trails,” Hawkins said.