Off-road vehicles are the latest threat to America's most beautiful places

Off-road vehicles are the latest threat to America's most beautiful places
© Courtesy of Stephen Trimble / www.stephentrimble.net

After opening up lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to unprecedented energy development, the Trump administration has turned its attention to national parks.

The administration recently announced that Utah’s five national parks will allow off-highway vehicles on all roads, including quiet dirt roads deep in the backcountry. This reversal of longstanding National Park Service policy comes after no environmental analysis. No public input. No real discussion. 

Visiting Arches National Park’s iconic Delicate Arch is a social occasion, with dozens of other pilgrims perched nearby on the sandstone bowl framing the arch, waiting their turn for a selfie under the graceful span. Most visitors are respectful and thrilled to be here. Families can still experience rare quiet and tranquility on the hike to the arch, reveling in the cascading melody of a canyon wren’s call. Imagine this bucket-list experience jarred by distant growls on park roads — for the uninsulated motors on ATVs emit a roar that carries much farther than standard vehicles. 

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Bringing ATVs and even more powerful ultra-off-road vehicles into parks will increase crowding, tangle traffic, and ramp up noise levels for both visitors and wildlife. Congested park roads need fewer vehicles, not more.

The new rule supposedly limits these powerful street-legal machines to roads. But even with a majority of law-abiding riders, a few will go off-road. They just will. Their vehicles are designed for this exact purpose.

Utah’s five cherished national parks — Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion — have backcountry districts accessible only via remote dirt and gravel roads notoriously hard to patrol. To reach The Maze district of Canyonlands, for instance, you leave the interstate just before you see the sign announcing there is “no services for the next 106 miles.” You turn south for a last 24 miles of smooth pavement, then follow a good dirt road for another 46 miles. This gets you to The Maze ranger station.

Here there are 30-square miles of intricate canyons, where the designated road winds across rock and sand among a humble scattering of juniper and piñon. Motorized access consists of 14 miles of slow going via high-clearance four-wheel-drive. No guardrails, no barriers to keep vehicles where they are supposed to be.

The park manages the 20,000 acres of The Maze for remoteness. The tiny staff includes a single park ranger authorized to ticket wrongdoers. ATVs here would essentially be unsupervised.

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These redrock canyons and mesas are remarkably vulnerable. An ATV driver doesn’t see the wound he leaves when he drives his four-wheeler and takes a spin into the untouched desert.  He sees only adventure.  But he and his friends create a fretwork of tracks that fragments habitat. 

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 that biological soil crust and you disrupt a delicate network of life. After a one-time trample, pioneering cyanobacteria might take a decade to recolonize. Lichens can take 60 years. Climate-stressed soil crust will need centuries to regenerate. 

Sever these threads holding the land together, and the ecosystem begins to unravel.

Each step backward from conservation ignores literally millions of comments and protests from citizens who believe public lands have national and international significance. Each of these actions discounts the wishes of many residents of towns and villages tucked into pockets of private land in a sea of federal lands. Each loss of protection disregards the rights of the native peoples of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin, who have spiritual connections to these lands and untapped traditional knowledge about what matters most here.

Crossing the line into our national parks may be one step too far for Americans not steeped in public lands policy but fiercely protective of “America’s best idea.” These are the special places we have commissioned the National Park Service to “preserve unimpaired” for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Surely that mission statement will give pause to the guardians of our parks before they send off-road vehicles into the cherished peace and rejuvenating quiet of our national treasures.

Stephen Trimble serves on the board of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners. He previously worked as a seasonal ranger in Utah national parks. His latest book is “The Capitol Reef Reader.”