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Indefinitely Wild

Calm Down About ATVs in Utah's National Parks

The NPS announced last week that it would begin allowing ATVs to drive on roads in Utah’s parks. The move is intended to bring NPS regulations in the state’s parks in line with state law.

Hear "ATVs in National Parks," and it's easy to picture this happening at every sensitive site. In reality, ATVs are really no different than car or motorcycles, and are just a wholesome way for a family to get some outdoor fun. What's really that different between one of these, and an old Jeep? (Photo: Honda)
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I’ve got a secret spot in Death Valley National Park that I visit when I need some time away from people. It’s 45 miles from the nearest paved road, and the trails that lead there are challenging enough that you need to use a modified 4x4, dirt bike, or ATV to navigate them. You know what my favorite thing about that spot is? The silence. It’s strange to me, then, that the chief arguments people use to complain about ATVs in parks is the noise they make. 

The National Park Service announced last week that it would begin allowing people to drive ATVs on roads in Utah’s national parks. The move is intended to bring NPS regulations in the state’s parks in-line with state law. This makes sense; the Code of Regulations that governs law enforcement on federal lands clearly defers to a state’s right to set its own vehicle laws, stating, “The use of vehicles within a park area [is] governed by state law.” This applies to the types of vehicle permitted on roadways, their size and weight, and even the amount of noise they make. ATVs have exploded in popularity in recent years, and enthusiasts have been lobbying for improved access, which has often come in the form of modifying laws written before the existence of ATVs to acknowledge their presence. 

Not only are all terrain vehicles, utility task vehicles, side-by-sides, or whatever you want to call them no noisier than other types of vehicles, but because it’s the states, not the federal government, that are responsible for deciding which vehicles are able to operate on the roads within their borders, they are, by legal definition, no different than cars, trucks, motorcycles, or RVs. And all of those are already allowed in national parks. 

So, why are people so upset about this? My theory is gatekeeping. We want to keep national parks full of our kind of people. Not the kind of people who ride ATVs. 

You can practically hear the pearl clutching in some of the opposition to the new rule. “They’re loud and obnoxious and because of that they’re completely contrary to the reasons that people travel from across the globe and across the country to visit national parks,” Neal Clark, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told The Salt Lake Tribune

In order to legally operate an ATV on public roads in Utah, that vehicle must be registered with the state and insured. And for those things to happen, it must be fitted with a legal muffler and safety equipment. All the normal laws continue to apply to ATVs: they must obey posted speed limits and are only allowed on designated roads, dirt roads, off-highway vehicle trails, or in special off-highway vehicle parks. 

The Tribune argues that ATVs make so much noise, “that occupants wear ear protection.” This is untrue. People who ride ATVs wear ear plugs due to wind noise, which is so loud inside a helmet that it can damage your hearing at just 37 miles per hour. Utah has no statewide noise restrictions for any vehicles, but other states do apply their own noise regulations—typically at 80 to 92 decibels—to ATVs, which are able to easily meet those regulations in stock form. Modifying a vehicle’s exhaust system in such a way that it circumvents or removes the muffler is illegal in Utah; ATVs sold there are no louder than the ones that do pass noise regulations in other states. 

So is it some inherent obnoxiousness that so offends recreationists like Clark? All roads in national parks are subject to speed limits—the fastest you can legally travel in most parks is 45 miles per hour—and other driving regulations, as set by the state in which the park roads are located. Dangerous driving and stunts of any kind are illegal. No matter what kind of vehicle you drive—as is driving off a designated road or trail. 

It’s confusion about what “off-road” means that seems to drive a feeling among their opponents that ATVs are obnoxious. “They are uniquely capable of easily leaving the road and traveling cross country,” states an argument against ATV access in a 2008 NPS memo. It’s a common misconception that off-road driving or riding simply involves going wherever you like. Not only is this typically impossible, even in a vehicle as capable as an ATV, but it’s also illegal. On any public lands, operating a vehicle outside a designated road, trail, or special off-highway vehicle park is expressly illegal. These roads and trails have typically been in place for decades, and enable vehicles to travel through sensitive environments without damaging them. 

While that may not be common knowledge among people who don’t participate in off-roading, ethical and legal trail use is front and center for many who do. As I explored at length in this article, multiple non-profits exist across the off-road world, spreading knowledge about minimizing the impacts of the activity, and the off-road community has been exceptionally effective at self policing. Do something unethical in front of other off-roaders, and you can expect a verbal lashing. Post that unethical action to the internet, and hoards of off-road enthusiasts will descend to boycott your business, ban you from group outings, and generally ostracize you from the community. 

Yet, the rest of the world still looks at an off-road enthusiast and sees an other. They see the type of person they don’t want to see in a national park. They shouldn’t. “As a whole, [off-road vehicle users] are more active in every single recreation activity relative to the general U.S. population,” according to the U.S. Forest Service. In 2008, it conducted a study on off-road vehicle use on the land it manages. The result? “For some activities, OHV users participate at more than twice the national rate.” It found that 47 percent of off-roaders were going off-road in order to go swimming, 49 percent were going fishing, and 86 percent were using their off-road vehicles to find a neat place to go for a nature walk.

If you're not familiar with the off-road world, you think that allowing ATVs in National Parks is akin to opening the gates for Immortan Joe and his War Boys, but in actual fact this is just another group of outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy all the same things you do. They just choose to facilitate that passion with an ATV, rather than a Prius. Arguments that visitors on ATVs are going to overwhelm understaff parks are moot for that reason, even if the ATV community has done itself no favors with its image in Utah. In 2014, a local politician staged a protest ride on Bureau of Land Management land in the state that was closed for archeological research. It's not exactly clear what the riders thought they might gain from the protest, but it certainly made them look like a bunch of jerks. 

The other big argument against the new rules is more political than it is social. The rule was made by proclamation, rather than the review of environmental impacts and public comment that’s supposed to be the process. This is the same practice that’s causing trouble across our public lands under the Trump Administration, be it drilling in ANWR, or shrinking Bears Ears. But while I’ve argued strongly against the often illegal practice elsewhere, I also can’t help but feel that us environmentalists are shooting ourselves in the foot by fighting this one. 

Perhaps more than any other state, Utah is embroiled in a war to wrest control of the public lands inside its border away from the American public. The state’s strongly conservative social history plays a role there, allowing politicians to deceive their constituents with specious arguments about state’s rights and big government. Some of the most vocal anti-public land voices on the national stage hail from Utah. Swinging the state’s vote away from politicians like that, and toward representatives who support public lands would be a major win. And people who enjoy using public lands vote for public lands

There are 202,000 registered, road-legal ATVs in Utah, and only about 1.6 million voters. Could letting this case of rulemaking-by-proclamation go and accepting that motor vehicle rules in national parks are supposed to be determined by the states be worth it? 

I get to my secret spot in Death Valley using a 4x4 or dirt bike, functionally equivalent to an ATV. All three have always been legal in the park. I wouldn’t be able to get that deep, or that far from other people by any other means. And, once I’m there, with the vehicle switched off, I have the place all to myself. Our national parks are still vast enough that you find solitude in one, even in times of record visitation. ATVs aren’t going to overcrowd Utah’s national parks, even if they do allow a few new people to enjoy them. And that is a worthy goal, no matter how you look at it. 

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