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Mike Lee’s bill to allow off-highway vehicles in national parks is a bad idea

By Cordell Roy | Special to The Tribune

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, recently introduced two bills in the Senate — S.1526 and S.1527 — that have to do with allowing off-highway vehicle use in our national parks.

S.1526, if passed, would allow the use of off-highway vehicles on most roads in Capitol Reef National Park. S.1527 is national in scope and specifies that “the law of the state … shall apply to the use of motor vehicles on roads (including off-highway vehicles) within a System unit.”

My friend Steve Trimble recently wrote an excellent opinion piece in this paper that focused on the off-highway vehicle aspects of the proposed legislation. There is another and significant concern with the second of Lee’s bills, S.1527.

Understanding this concern requires getting down into some nerdy, regulatory stuff. Stay with me, here goes.

S.1527 would have the motor vehicle law of the state in which a park is located apply on roads within those parks. What’s so bad about that? Very little, actually. The National Park Service agrees with that concept, to a point. For decades, it has had a regulation (36 CFR 4.2) that adopts respective state motor vehicle codes as federal regulations.

That regulation has an exception clause which allows individual parks to institute measures to accommodate special park situations and needs. Most parks have those local closures or restrictions to meet those needs. The National Park Service also has 14 general traffic regulations, ranging from speed limits (generally slower in parks than surrounding areas) and commercial vehicle restrictions (no big trucks on some narrow park roads) and even to allowing ATV/OHV use in such areas that can have them (National Recreation Areas, for one). These applications have successfully been used by parks for decades. Largely, they are not controversial and are readily accepted and supported by the public.

The existing regulations were promulgated under the Park Service’s general regulatory authority from its Organic Act of 1916. Lee’s specific legislation would at worst negate and at least confuse that authority and render those decades of useful and protective regulatory actions ineffective.

I believe S.1527 is a poorly informed effort developed solely to allow the use of off-highway vehicles in all 423 units of the National Park System (if allowed by state law). This legislation appears written without regard to its other effects.

To recklessly apply such sweeping legislation to all 423 units across our nation without due consideration to the individual park needs and local impacts of S.1527 would be irresponsible. Both S.1526 and S.1527 are officially opposed by the National Park Service in Senate committee testimony.

This legislation has little chance of passage in this Senate, but stranger things have happened. It could get out of the Senate. Troubling, too, is that we cannot count on a Democrat-controlled Senate forever, and I doubt that Lee will give up on this legislation.

One would think that, in a park-rich state like Utah, our elected representatives would be more supportive of your parks and better understand their purposes and need for protection.

Cordell Roy was a ranger, resources manager and superintendent for the National Park Service with postings in many states, including three in Utah. He served nine years as Utah coordinator for NPS, retiring in 2011. He and his wife, Judith, live in South Jordan.