Moab: On the horns of a recreation dilemma

Finally, a limit to off-roading on public lands

 

MOAB, Utah — Rancher Curtis Rozman recalls an encounter he had last fall with an all-terrain vehicle driver: "He stopped and read the ‘No Trespassing’ sign. Then he rammed the fence with his vehicle, backed up, rammed it again, and … pushed the fence down."

For decades, Rozman’s family has run cattle on Bureau of Land Management land 60 miles northwest of Moab, Utah. But in the past few years, like many other BLM lands in the state, his grazing allotment has become a popular off-roading playground.

Bad behavior isn’t typical of all off-roaders. But the number of registered off-highway vehicles in Utah has more than tripled in the last six years, from 52,000 to 161,000 — and that surge in numbers alone means that conflicts between off-roaders and ranchers are more common. Many locals, such as Rozman, fear that non-motorized users are getting pushed out, as each year more Jeeps, ATVs, giant-tired rock crawlers and dirt bikes traverse once-remote desert trails around Moab (HCN, 11/08/99: ORVs run wild and free in Utah).

As public-lands tourism continues to grow, other Western communities will face the same dilemma: trying to accommodate everyone from windshield tourists to hikers to mountain bikers to four-wheelers. "We want people to come here, and our businesses need it," says Audrey Graham, a member of the Grand County Council, "but we want the different groups to have fun without ruining each other’s experiences." And, she adds, "We’re not willing to be a sacrifice area."

The best hope for managing off-roading, as well as other forms of recreation, may lie with the BLM, which is revising its management plans for the public lands around Moab. Unlike most of the agency’s other lands in Utah, "recreation is absolutely a bigger issue here (than oil and gas development)," according to Brent Northrup, team leader for the Moab resource management plan.

Western states such as Colorado, Montana and Wyoming strictly regulate off-road vehicle use, but Utah’s public land has very few restrictions — and for many people, that’s part of the draw. In the red sand desert outside of Moab, some riders take advantage of lax BLM regulations to travel cross-country, tearing up vegetation, scarring soil crusts and carving new trails. "The land doesn’t need to suffer like that," says Dave Cozzens, a Moab business owner and member of the Utah Trail Machine Association.

Uncontrolled off-roading also affects landowners. Kiley Miller and John Rzeczycki, who own 160 acres south of town, are fighting an ongoing court battle to keep off-highway vehicles from crossing their property on an old mining road. Seventh District Court Judge Lyle Anderson has ruled that a valid easement exists for the route and that it must remain open to the public.

"We use four-wheelers ourselves to work on the ranch," says Rozman. "But public land is supposed to be multiple use, and the problem with OHVs is that they preclude every other use. You can’t run cows out there with them tearing around, people don’t want to bike or hike near them, so where’s the multiple use?"

Drafts of the BLM’s 15-year land-use plans for the area around Moab and the nearby town of Monticello are due out this September. The plans were last updated in the late 1980s, before the explosive growth of four-wheeling. "Since motor vehicles were invented, people have come here to recreate with them," says Cozzens. "It needs to be managed, not shut off."

The agency plans to limit off-roaders to "designated trails only" in many areas that now allow unrestricted cross-country travel. It also intends to divvy up trails between motorized and non-motorized users to lessen conflicts. But new rules don’t mean much if they’re not enforced, and only two law enforcement personnel cover the 1.8 million-acre area around Moab, which gets approximately 2 million visitors each year. The agency has no budget for more, says Northrup.

One local suggests that even more than law enforcement, the BLM needs some respect: "The national parks don’t have this problem — people know you don’t go to a park and then tear it up," says Adrien Taylor, editor of the Moab Times-Independent. "So how does the BLM get that kind of respect for the land it manages?"

The author is HCN news editor.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Learning from Moab's example."

CONTACT:

Moab BLM office 435-259-2100, www.moabrmp.com

Monticello BLM office 435-587-1500, www.monticellormp.com

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