While it's never a good look for a public lands agency to push a rule change through without public comment, we won't quibble with the outcome of a new National Park Service rule regarding ATVs.
According to the Associated Press, the National Park Service's acting regional director, Palmer "Chip" Jenkins, recently informed park administrators in a memo about a policy change that allows ATVs and so-called utility terrain vehicles (or UTVs) on main access roads and back roads within Utah's five national parks if they have standard safety equipment and are registered and insured.
The rule aims to conform National Park Service rules with a Utah law passed in 2008 that allows any "street-legal" vehicle on state and county roads. The agency had previously opted not to align with the state law because it feared it would be too easy for ATVs to drive off roads if they were allowed anywhere in the park. But National Park Service spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo said off-roading won't be allowed.
That's the bottom line. Critics contend that the park service should have gone through a public process and conducted an analysis of whether it can adequately protect parks while allowing ATVs on park property. But if the rule is that ATVs must stick to roads, isn't protection in place?
Violators will be cited. And if the park service discovers scofflaws, it may have to rescind the rule. That's a lot of motivation for ATV users to respect the opportunity they've been given.
Besides, it strikes us as discriminatory to assume that ATV users would go-off road just because that's what their vehicles are designed to do. Nobody assumes mountain bikers will go off trail even though their bikes are equipped to do so.
There are plenty of muscular trucks on those same roads fully capable of going off-road. Why should a Toyota Tundra be able to traverse the White Rim in Canyonlands but not a rock-crawler that already has to be street-legal? Arguing that they're noisy overlooks the fact that any internal combustion engine is going to disrupt the solitude. Why the double-standard?
The National Park Service could have saved itself a lot of grief by going through a public process to arrive at the same conclusion. Cynically, we don't think it would have made a difference. No amount of public opposition seems to affect decision-making under the current administration. But as far as outcomes, this is one we can live with.
Utah is now the nation's test kitchen on the wisdom of allowing ATVs near precious cultural and natural resources. Our bet is that ATV users know the nation is watching and will take extreme care to respect the new rule.