ORVs run wild and free in Utah

  • Jeep Safari-goers near Moab, Utah

    SUWA photo by Heidi McIntosh

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Buffed-up and bristling with rock-banging, wall-climbing extras, the 1999 Grand Cherokee Jeep Laredo with all the bells and winches will set you back a cool $34,000. And you may need the power of a Grand Cherokee to conquer the Moab, Utah, trail dubbed the lower "Helldorado" by aficionados of backcountry four-wheeling.

In the March 1999 edition of Four Wheeler magazine, writer Phil Howell calls the abandoned uranium mining road "tough - there's a mandatory winch-up-a-dry-waterfall obstacle in the middle of it. When added to the original Helldorado, it makes a full day of extreme challenges."

Aggressive off-road driving is becoming commonplace in Utah, which is second only to California in ORV use, according to the Ogden Standard. As conservationists race to protect Utah's remaining roadless lands, conflict rises between hikers and the recreationists who want to blaze new roads, and drive old ones, into the canyon country.

So far, it has been a contest with no referee, according to Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). The U.S. Forest Service is beginning to tackle ORVs and roads, she says, but the Bureau of Land Management has a lot of catching up to do. "Ninety-four percent of Utah BLM lands are currently available for off-road vehicle (ORV) use," she says. "The BLM has completely abdicated its responsibilities to manage ORVs in Utah. They just haven't done anything."

New soldiers in an old battle

The debate over access to federal lands in southern Utah has been simmering for decades. As recently as 1996, county commissioners sent road graders into wilderness study areas, Capitol Reef National Park and the newly created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The counties claim rights-of-way under RS 2477, a Civil War-era statute, repealed in 1976, that allowed counties to build highways across federal land (HCN, 10/28/96).

The BLM rejected county claims to all the roads bulldozed in 1996, and SUWA is suing to delegitimize about a dozen road claims around the state. But at least 10,000 RS 2477 claims remain, and "ORV riders are encouraging counties to lay claim to every Jeep track and ORV trail they can," says Heidi McIntosh.

Last Easter weekend, 5,000 people came to Moab for the annual Jeep Safari. In 1998, the Utah State Parks Department registered 68,694 motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles, more than three times as many as it registered in 1988. An additional 279,000 street-legal four-wheel-drive trucks and sport utility vehicles were registered in Utah in 1997, up 55,000 from 1992, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

The trend is of particular concern to environmentalists because ORVs and roads threaten water quality, fragile plant life and solitude in many areas they want protected as wilderness. While ORV use on most Forest Service lands is guided by travel plans and maps, McIntosh says the BLM has no specific guidance for most of its 23 million acres in Utah.

The agency has not looked at the environmental impact of ORV trails or considered conflicts with other trail users, she adds.

"That's just the usual B.S. you get from wilderness-user groups," responds Clark Collins, executive director of the ORV advocacy group, the Blue Ribbon Coalition. "The important point is that there are trails that we're currently using and wilderness advocates want to kick us off."

A matter of priorities

Suzanne Garcia, Utah BLM recreation program leader, acknowledges that the situation is out of control. "Our land-use plans say what's open (to ORVs), what's closed and what's restricted, but we don't have actual route-by-route designation or signing," she says. "Signs don't last. They're torn down and people don't know an area is closed, or they know and drive in anyway."

The issue is complicated by RS 2477 claims and areas that are being studied for wilderness designation, but are not yet protected as wilderness study areas, she adds (HCN, 8/3/98). "Everyone knows we don't have enough law enforcement on the ground," she says. "You'll have one law enforcement officer covering millions of acres. There's no way he's going to get there in time to stop someone who's riding where he shouldn't."

Still, says Garcia, access issues are one of her agency's top priorities. The Utah BLM is part of a statewide Natural Resources Coordinating Council that includes all the major state and federal natural resource management agencies. A subset of that committee is looking at defining new policies for ORV use on all state and federal lands in Utah. The group is considering better public outreach and trail signage to let people know which trails are open to ORVs.

"The days of establishing new roads and trails and allowing cross-country ORV use of public lands are over," says BLM spokesman Glenn Foreman.

There have been success stories, he adds, such as the Little Sahara Sand Dunes and Paiute Trail, where there are more than 200 miles of ORV trails and very little resource damage or conflict among users.

Nonetheless, in late October, SUWA sued the BLM, claiming that federal law requires the agency to inventory and rethink its roads and trails, with an eye to minimizing environmental impacts and reducing conflicts with nonmotorized recreationists. In the meantime, SUWA wants the agency to ban motorized traffic in all areas proposed for wilderness protection.

While the BLM claims roads and trails are a top priority, says McIntosh, it still spends the lion's share of its money on mining, grazing and land-use permits. "Recreation is just exploding, but they're focusing on the things they've always done," she says. "Their list of priorities should reflect the reality of what's going on on the ground."

You can contact ...
* Chris Wood with the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., 202/205-1083;
* Alan Silker with the Targhee National Forest, Box 208, St. Anthony, ID 83445, 208/624-3151;
* Clark Collins with the Blue Ribbon Coalition, P.O. Box 5449, Pocatello, ID 83202, 208/233-6570, www.sharetrails.org;
* Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, 1727 Longworth, House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515, 202/225-6611;
* Ken Rait with the Oregon Natural Resources Council's Heritage Forests Campaign, 5825 North Greeley, Portland, OR 97217-4145, 503/283-6343, www.onrc.org;
* John Gatchell with the Montana Wilderness Association, P.O. Box 635, Helena, MT 59624, 406/443-7350;
* Shawn Regnerus with the Predator Conservation Alliance's Roads Scholars Project. P.O. Box 6733, Bozeman, MT 59771, 406/587-3389, www.wildrockies.org/predproj;
* Heidi McIntosh with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 1471 S. 1100 E., Salt Lake City, UT 84105-2423, 801/486-3161, www.suwa.org.
* Suzanne Garcia with the Utah Bureau of Land Management, P.O Box 45155, Salt Lake City, UT 84145, 801/ 539-4021;
* Annie Connor with the Clearwater National Forest, 12730 Highway 12, Orofino, ID 83544, 208/476-8200.

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