Barron: Utahns Must Demand Conservation over Recreation

A view from Canyonlands National Park (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A view from Canyonlands National Park (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Morgan Barron, Opinion Writer

The Yellowstone Act of 1872 established our country’s first national park, dedicating Yellowstone and all future parks to be “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” It also tasked the Secretary of the Interior with the duty to make “rules and regulations… necessary or proper for the care and management” of the park.

In practice, these “rules and regulations” look like the National Park Service (NPS) “don’t bust the crust” campaign to ensure that the Arches and Canyonlands parks remain pristine and ecologically sound for future generations to enjoy. Sadly, it is clear that some within NPS leadership have chosen to neglect their conservation and preservation responsibilities and allow the devastation of the land in their care.  

This devastation can be most recently seen in the decisions of Acting Intermountain Regional Director of the NPS, Palmer “Chip” Jenkins. Director Jenkins issued a memo forcing Utah’s five national parks to comply with Utah state road-access law, which allows off-road vehicles (ORVs) like ATVs into the Mighty Five. S.B. 181 authorizes any “street-legal” vehicle to drive on all state and county roads.

Since the law’s passage in 2008, the NPS has argued that even legal ORVs would increase illegal off-roading, as there are not enough park personnel to enforce off-roading laws. According to Phil Francis, a previous park superintendent, the idea that NPS policies must be consistent with state law does not take into account the country-wide significance of national parks. Bending to the states may prevent the NPS from fulfilling the responsibilities laid out by the U.S. Congress, as clearly seen in Jenkins’s memo.

Jenkins made the decision to open the Mighty Five to ORVs without asking for public input.  This means the only opinions on this issue he heard were from Utah’s off-roading groups that petitioned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for access in July. These off-roading groups argued that concerns about the impact of these vehicles on the park were unfounded; however, the U.S. Forest Service released a comprehensive study of the effect of ATV traffic on land in 2008, which found that natural resources are absolutely affected by ORV traffic. These vehicles contribute to expanding trail widths and the loss of original ground cover.

While Jenkins may not have asked for input on his decision, Superintendent of Arches and Canyonland National Parks Katie Cannon wrote a memo detailing how ORVs would harm her park. Cannon expects ORVs to degrade the parks’ air quality and increase noise pollution — disturbing both the visitors and the wildlife. Utahns should follow Cannon’s lead and email Jenkins directly to demand that he complete a thorough and impartial analysis of the potential impacts of ORVs on Utah’s parks prior to opening the parks. Utahns should also write their state legislators to remind them that the Yellowstone Act of 1872 supersedes this state law and to ask them to ensure protection for our national parks from ORVs.

This seemingly simple decision will endanger the unique landscapes of the parks, damaging the environment and lowering the quality of visitor experiences. Allowing ORVs into the Mighty Five will benefit very few visitors at the expense of many others. ORVs will cause problems in our parks like increases in erosion, off-roading and noise pollution.  If Utahns want to continue to identify ourselves and our state by the beautiful, natural formation in our national parks like the Delicate Arch, we need to stand up for the Mighty Five by demanding NPS leadership prioritize conservation instead of recreation.

NPS Management Policies reads, “When proposed park uses and the protection of park resources and values come into conflict, the protection of resources and values must be predominant.” By siding with recreation over conservation, Jenkins is failing to uphold the National Parks’ charter. While the consequences of this neglect will impact all Americans, Utahns have a duty to address this action, as it is our state law that has opened these parks to danger in the first place. 


[email protected]