“There was a time I could go out and ride a motorcycle cross-country,” says Ray Peterson, director of the Emery County Public Lands Council. “And the next day I could go back out and there wouldn’t be another track except mine.” That’s no longer the case: Off-road vehicle use in Utah has exploded during the past decade. But while most of the state’s counties support unrestricted off-roading, Emery County is bucking the trend.
In late February, the Utah House passed legislation that would have allowed off-road vehicles to travel the state’s roads and most highways. (The bill later died in the Senate.) And last fall, when the Bureau of Land Management closed parts of Factory Butte Recreational Area to cross-country travel to protect rare cacti, outraged Wayne County commissioners amended their county plan to declare Factory Butte open “to cross-country [off-road vehicle] travel 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
But in Emery County, officials are taking a different tack. This fall, the Emery County Public Lands Council, an advisory body made up of representatives of public-land interests, sent letters to local newspapers calling for curbs on illegal motorized vehicle use. Describing how increased use harmed roads, land and ranchers, they called for more educational efforts, asked citizens to report illegal off-roading, and advocated higher fines for rule-breakers.
Within Emery County, the Bureau of Land Management already has some of the most stringent off-road restrictions in Utah. Since 2003, travel in the San Rafael Swell has been allowed only on designated routes. Even so, county officials are concerned by the exponential growth in off-road vehicle use. Ninety-two percent of Emery County is public, and off-road enthusiasts are flooding in from the Wasatch Front and southwest Colorado.
County officials don’t want to stop this tourism, which brings dollars to local towns. But Peterson says he doesn’t want the economy to become dependent on it, either; the county has already suffered from the boom and bust of the coal economy.
Members of the Public Lands Council are also concerned about the county’s water supply. The area, which receives only about eight inches of rain a year,depends on a watershed that starts in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, in the northeast corner of the county. Council members worry that the erosion caused by off-roaders will cause heavy runoffs and soil in reservoirs.
There have been no studies to confirm the problem, but erosion was pronounced this fall, when a wet hunting season prompted vehicles to drive around ruts, resulting in the widening of roads. Illegal off-road driving also left ruts and muddy swaths of ground. “You don’t have to be a scientist,” says Sherrel Ward, president of the Huntington-Cleveland Irrigation Company and a member of the Public Lands Council. “You have soil coming down and that makes water muddy.”
For now, the Lands Commission hopes that public outreach, such as the letters, will help curtail illegal riding when the off-roading season kicks into high gear this spring. County Commissioner Gary Kofford quotes an old axiom: “If you abuse it, you’re going to lose it."