Utah National Parks Expanding OHV Access on Designated Roads

National Parks throughout Utah will soon allow off-highway vehicles to travel the same roads currently restricted to regular vehicle access.

As first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, the National Park Service’s acting regional director, Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, directed a memo on Sept. 24 to Utah park superintendents instructing them to align their regulations with Utah law by Nov. 1, 2019.

Enacted in 2008, Utah Senate Bill 181 allows any street legal vehicle on all state roads and highways. Despite this statute, National Parks in Utah have closed their roads to OHVs on the precedent that they can easily venture off roads.

OHVs include all-terrain vehicles, typified by four-wheelers, and utility-terrain vehicles which have become increasingly popular recreational off-roaders known for their side-by-side bucket seats, larger suspension and capacity for highway speeds.

The policy has been set in motion without public input, which has caused further controversy on the subject.

Anne Smith, an Instructor of Outdoor Recreation in Parks and Tourism at SUU, commented that the decision wouldn’t have likely been altered, even had public forums had been held.

“This administration has demonstrated that the public process is not important…however, that being said, it does not change the fact that the public process is required by law via NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) for all federal agencies.”

“I am most troubled by the continued circumvention of the law and the public process,” Smith said, “Which ultimately weakens our system of governing and management of public lands.

Smith reported that concerns from opponents might point to the reality that the National Park Service is already grossly underfunded and understaffed and will not be able to sufficiently patrol and enforce the off-roading that they say will inevitably occur. 

“They would also point out that OHV use does not align with the mission of the National Park Service, which is, in short, to preserve resources for people. OHV’s, by their nature, more so than regular transportation (cars, trucks, etc), impact resources more dramatically, since they are specifically built to travel anywhere.”

Proponents of OHV access argue that targeting ATVs/UTVs as threats to park resources solely because they are designed, manufactured and marketed for off-road use is biased and unfair.

In a July 2019 letter to Secretary David Bernhardt of the U.S. Department of the Interior, respective Presidents Bud Breuning and Brett Stewart of UTV Utah and Utah OHV Advocates contend that OHVs should not be restricted from national parks simply because of their designation.

“How do these parks mitigate risk to resources and values posed by Subaru Outbacks, pick-up trucks, Jeeps, motorhomes, dual-sport motorcycles, and countless other motorized vehicles that are capable of off-highway, all-terrain travel?” inquired Presidents Breuning and Stewart.

The discrepancy was one of many in favor of bringing national park policy in harmony with state law.

“I can see both points of view,” Smith said. “If this is not challenged in the courts (as much of the current administration’s policies have been), and if they are able to have adequate enforcement, this may not have that great of an impact.”

The policy will be implemented in Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks. Full information on Utah’s OHV laws and regulations can be found at stateparks.utah.gov

Story and Photos by: Reyce Knutson