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Besides the winding canyons, the layer-cake washes of color, the impossibly teetering arches, and the soaring buttes and vast mesas, one of the first things you notice about remote Utah is the silence. On a windless day, the silence is numbing.

But beginning in November, the sound of ATVs and UTVs (side-by-sides like the ubiquitous Polaris brand of vehicles) powering along dirt roads may begin echoing throughout Utah’s canyon country. Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, the National Park Service’s acting regional director, instructed national park superintendents last week to begin allowing the vehicles to travel back roads on the five national parks within Utah: Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef.

The decision was reached without public comment.

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In 2008, Utah passed a law that would allow any street legal vehicle on all state and county roads anywhere within state borders. This new rule handed down by Jenkins is intended to bring Utah’s national parks in line with that 2008 law. If an ATV or UTV is registered and fitted with legally required safety features, it will be allowed on all legal back roads within Utah, whether on national park property or not. The NPS had been reluctant to open these roads to ATVs despite the 2008 law out of concern it would be difficult to ensure the vehicles were staying on designated roads.

Almost immediately after the announcement, conservationists began to criticize the decision.

“These are national parks that have incredible resources, cultural resources, natural resources, and so by allowing these vehicles that are tailored to go anywhere, you’re potentially putting these resources at risk,” said Kristen Brengel, the National Parks Conservation Association’s vice president of government affairs. “The Park Service should be going through a public process, doing an analysis and making sure they can adequately protect the park and its resources and visitors. They haven’t done that.”

Conservationists fear that once these vehicles are allowed to roam into remote backcountry areas on sanctioned dirt roads, they will end up powering off-road through sensitive areas, the drivers tempted by the impressive capability of the vehicles, causing damage to fragile desert ecosystems and potentially to cultural resources like sensitive archaeological research sites. Larger vehicles like trucks and SUVs with four-wheel drive don’t perform as well in the kinds of difficult terrain ATVs and UTVs can cross. Further, ATVs and UTVs are typically far, far louder, as they have little sound insulation quieting their engines.

While advocates for the change point out that travel off designated roads will be cited with tickets, many areas within Utah’s parks are so remote rangers can’t be expected to patrol adequately for proper ATV use. “This alignment with state law isn’t carte blanche to take their ATVs off road,” said NPS spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo. “If people (drive) off road, they will be cited. Protection of these resources is paramount.”

Proponents for the change argue that they’ve been unfairly singled out and kept from driving in areas that already allow cars and trucks. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the rule change was backed chiefly by Rep. Phil Lyman of Blanding, Utah. Lyman wrote a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt earlier in September explaining that he was “offended” that ATV and UTV users weren’t allowed on dirt roads within national parks, while pointing out that Utah has a large number of operators of those vehicles which generate lots of money in taxes that fund roads and infrastructure. As did ATV and OHV (off-highway vehicles) advocacy groups, which also penned Bernhardt a letter in support of lifting the ban against their rigs in national parks.

“Despite being one of the largest groups of public land users, and even though the economic benefit of our community dwarfs most other recreational users combined, we often find ourselves discriminated against by decision-makers that head public land agencies,” they wrote.

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Environmental groups sued the BLM earlier this summer for opening remote stretches of Utah to off-road vehicle use near Factory Butte outside of Capitol Reef National Park, which had previously been closed to protect endangered cacti.

Photo by Patrick Hendry

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