ST. GEORGE — The roar of off-road vehicles in the pristine backcountry of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area may soon be a sound of the past.

A houseboat sits in the green water and high orange cliffs of Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, March 18, 2014 | Photo courtesy of Gary Ladd, National Park Service, St. George News

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the National Parks Conservation Association reached a settlement in their lawsuits against the National Park Service concerning off-road vehicle management at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The two cases in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia were dismissed.

The agencies reached an agreement that commits the park service to propose a revised rule that better protects the ecological integrity and visitor experience of Glen Canyon by limiting OHVs and street-legal ATVs in the park’s most delicate areas.

A spokesperson for the park service, Glen Canyon, and Rainbow Bridge National Monument office told St. George News that a process begins with the signing of the settlement.

“The National Park Service will begin the rule making process, which will be open to public comment on any changes to the newly proposed rule. The agency is pleased that we could find compromise in addressing this challenge and much of the current Off-Road Vehicle regulation should not be affected by this settlement,” Mary Plumb, public affairs officer for Glen Canyon Recreation Center, said in an email to St. George News. “Diverse recreational opportunities continue to be a priority for park management.”

Hanna Larsen Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told St. George News the settlement is significant for protecting national park land from harmful impacts of off-highway vehicles and street-legal all-terrain vehicles. The settlement will not affect recreation on Lake Powell.

“For many decades, the National Park Service allowed unauthorized proper vehicle use in many areas throughout the recreation area, including on shorelines that are accessible by road, on designated unpaved roads and user-created trails that are just generally extensions of trails from the adjacent Bureau of Land Management areas,” Bloch said.

Off-road vehicles were unauthorized because the park service regulations require that if they’re going to allow offered vehicles in national recreation areas, they have to issue a particular regulation explicitly outlining where they can and cannot go, but the park service never did that, she said.

Cliffs and flowers in the Glen Canyon Lake Powell area, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, March 18, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Gary Ladd, National Park Service, St. George News

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was established in 1972. Congress designated the area to provide public outdoor recreation opportunities for Lake Powell and the adjacent lands to its reservoir. Bloch said the area was also established to preserve the “scenic, scientific purpose or features” contributing to the public enjoyment of the recreation area.

Bloch added that the park service released a general management plan around 1979 that provided “broad strokes” of guidelines and management criteria for managing the recreation area in its different portions.

“That plan, we think, was pretty inadequate and insufficient and didn’t do a good job at protecting the iconic landscapes of the park,” Bloch said.

A critical part of the original lawsuit was that the general management plan created the Orange Cliffs Special Management unit in the northeast section of the recreation area, where off-road vehicles are allowed. Bloch said the area was designed to be maintained as a critical backdrop for Canyonlands National Park and, because of this, should be managed to maintain an undeveloped atmosphere.

“The Orange Cliffs are unlike other areas of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, it’s like the backcountry, primitive, undeveloped areas,” Bloch said, adding that it should be in alignment with how the main district of Canyonlands is managed.

Glen Canyon, which extends through Southern Utah and northern Arizona, is known for stunning red rocks, deep canyons and mesas and solitude. It is one of the nation’s most remote recreational areas.

Bloch said in 2021, the park service ruled for expanded motorized vehicle use, ignoring the significant impacts widespread use would have on the recreation area’s vegetation, wildlife and silent atmosphere. The park service’s new authorization of OHV and street-legal ATV use in the remote and ecologically sensitive Orange Cliffs area was of particular concern.

Cliffs in the Glen Canyon Lake Powell area, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area, March 18, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Gary Ladd, National Park Service, St. George News

In a news release, Ernie Atencio, the Southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said Orange Cliffs is a sanctuary within Glen Canyon.

“It is known for its iconic sandstone cliffs, exquisite dark skies and preserved natural soundscapes; the Orange Cliffs area is a sanctuary within Glen Canyon,” Atencio said, adding that the association applauds the park service’s commitment to protecting the “rare tranquility” of the backcountry.

“We are committed to moving forward to support the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area staff as they take on complex management issues in the face of climate change and dramatically changing lake levels,” he said.

Atencio added that climate change is posing growing challenges to the 1,000 miles of shoreline. The settlement empowers the park service to proactively protect Glen Canyon’s narrow inlets and steep sandstone cliffs, according to the news release.

“With fluctuating water levels posing increasing management challenges, the Park Service will have the authority to restrict OHV and street-legal ATV access to shoreline areas as needed, protecting vulnerable natural resources,” Atencio said.

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