A recent move by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has enraged the off-road community in Moab, Utah.
You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the new ruling before hitting the trails in an off-highway vehicle.
Today, we’re uncovering the changes to Moab’s famous four-by-four scene so you’ll know what to expect.
Let’s kick the tires!
New Ruling Closes Off-Road Trails Near Moab, Utah
In 2008, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) challenged BLM’s travel management plans in court. They claimed the federal organization had failed to protect lands in Moab from destruction by off-road vehicles. Almost ten years later, they settled the suit with the stipulation that BLM must revise its practices in the area.
Upon completing a 20-year trail inventory, the agency announced the closure of nearly one-third of the region’s trails to off-road vehicles.
Jeep forums exploded with outrage over the reduction in access to wilderness trails. Some of their anger comes from feeling blindsided by the bureau’s ruling. After decades of working together with owners to maintain and police different routes, many felt abandoned.
Despite outcries from the four-by-four community, many don’t see the ban as a problem. Hikers and mountain bikers have long contended with loud, polluting companions in the otherwise pristine backcountry. And while they weren’t the ones who brought the lawsuit, they stand to gain the most.
In some ways, the off-road community sealed its own fate north of Moab. Recent years have seen an explosion of traffic, partially led by UTVs or side-by-side vehicles. Purpose-built to go further into mountains and at greater speeds than ever before, they’re the scapegoat in this scenario.
Both traditional overland riders and non-motorized users agree that these high-velocity dune buggies are the problem.
BLM hasn’t banned vehicles from all trails near the town. However, the chosen sites are among the most iconic, challenging tracks. Many serve as rights of passage in the community. In some instances, they’re also entry points to trailheads, meaning they’re inaccessible to all.
About Off-Road Recreation in Moab
The natural areas administered by the BLM around Moab, Utah, draw outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes. It’s the gateway to several massive national parks, including Arches and Canyonlands. Red rock formations, deep ravines, and mesas all attract off-road drivers.
Hundreds of trails lead out into the backcountry, allowing visitors to travel into the wilderness. Much of the region is also public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Because of this, users can boondock and travel freely as long as they follow the rules. And iconic vehicle makers have flocked to the area.
Each year in March, Stellantis holds its Easter Jeep Safari for tens of thousands of off-roaders. Along with the classics, there are plenty of newbies to the four-wheeling world. Shops rent out ATVs, UTVs, and dirt bikes all along the main drag in this town of 5,000.
Up to five million annual tourists make it a busy, thriving business hub. With 20,000 to 40,000 visitors at a time, it’s no wonder locals are concerned about losing income from the closures.
Jeepers aren’t the only folks flocking to the region.
Hikers, rock hounds, and cyclists also love the various routes the area offers. Canoeing and zip-lining give tourists access to deep canyons and picturesque views. In short, there’s a lot to love about the Moab wilderness. If you can get to it, that is.
Need a place to stay? We suggest Boondocking in Big Bend Campground – Moab, UT.
Which Areas Are Affected by the BLM Ruling?
Reading the community forums, you’d think every off-road trail outside Moab was shut down. But that’s simply not the case. Out of thousands of miles, only 317 are now closed to motorized traffic.
Primarily, they’re on the northwest side of the city, north of Green River. The BLM ruling also removed almost all access to overlooks near Labyrinth, Ten Mile, Taylor, and South Fork 7 Mile Canyons.
Iconic treks up Hey Joe Canyon, Mashed Potatoes, Ten Mile Canyon, and others are now off-limits. Some, like Colorado Off-Road Trail Defenders vice president Patrick McKay, see a huge problem. It’s “the worst defeat motorized recreation has suffered in decades,” he wrote on their Facebook page recently.
While some mourn the loss of access, others are happy to have quiet, pollution-free paths again.
You can still find great places to go with this Guide to Moab, UT Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails.
Why Is the BLM Closing Moab Off-Road Trails?
The environmentalist group SUWA’s posts smack of “not every vehicle” sentimentality. While they recognize that many Jeep groups partner with the BLM to maintain Moab’s off-road tracks, there’s a bigger issue.
When motorized traffic first started exploring the area, it was slow going for most. However, several new vehicles are causing a ruckus for the traditional crows.
UTVs cover ground in the mountains efficiently and at higher speeds than were once possible. They also bring a different type of tourist to the region. Many side-by-side owners don’t have the same long-time connection to the community or their values.
These machines can go further than traditional four-wheelers with high clearance and independent suspension. So, in recent years, there’s been an explosion of trash-strewn trails chewed up by high-velocity travel.
Again, it’s easy to point fingers and paint a whole group with the same brush. Most don’t contribute to the damage, but it’s still happening.
These factors led BLM to side with SUWA in their newest ruling. By banning all motorized traffic from these trails, they’ve punished a whole subculture. It’s a clear case of a few bad apples ruining the whole barrel of fun.
How Will the Moab Off-Road Trail Closures Affect the Area?
As we’ve suggested, there’s more to this ruling than just removing motorized vehicles from the trails. Beyond just taking many favorite routes off the table, BLM has also made it harder to enjoy the region. With some of the most gorgeous views out of reach, it impacts all users.
Because of the new restrictions on motorized traffic, hikers and mountain bikers are feeling the pinch. In the past, they’d take their Jeep to that backcountry campsite or distant trailhead. Now, it’s almost impossible to get to these areas.
Clearly, this is a case of unintended consequences.
RVers are also seeing some of their favorite boondocking spots made impassable. Waking up with a view of the Arches National Park just isn’t possible anymore. Dispersed campsites that used to be part of your summer pilgrimage are off-limits. For many, this is against the spirit of public lands altogether.
With their success in this ruling, groups like SUWA feel empowered. Whatever their intentions, they’ve made it nearly impossible for users to access the land. And with millions of acres of public property, it’s only a matter of time before they expand their reach.
What Can Be Done to Preserve Moab Off-Road Trail Access?
Several Utah-based groups, including the state attorney general, have filed appeals against the BLM ruling. By bringing their complaints before the Interior Board of Land Appeals, they hope to halt the closures.
Governor Spencer Cox has also thrown his weight behind the challenges, calling for “balance” in land management. Citing serious overreach, he’s asked for collaboration to preserve access for all groups.
Others, like the BlueRibbon Coalition and the Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders, have opposed the ruling. By filing administrative appeals, they’ve tried to stop it from going into effect.
Utah’s government has the best chance of interrupting BLM’s plans. Based on RS 2477, counties own roads built on public lands. The state says the federal government ignored their pleas to keep them open.
Additionally, they’ve suggested that the closures remove access to two parcels of land. These areas generate income for schools and a mental hospital operated by the municipality.
Off-road groups cite the National Environmental Policy or Dingell Act in response to the changes. Labyrinth Canyon was designated a wilderness area in 2019. So, it falls under the policy and shouldn’t have buffer zones around it. According to Congress, they say, the land should remain free to use.
The IBLA has 45 days to hear appeals before it makes a finding in the case.
We’ve got even more great places to stay: 11 Best Moab Camping Spots.
Is This the End of an Era or a New Beginning?
Off-road trails near Moab are some of the most beautiful in the country. And if you’re not a Jeeper, these types of grabs by the federal government are chilling. Sure, side-by-sides are annoying and dangerous to delicate ecosystems. However, we’re unsure if this is the best way to handle the problem.
This case challenges our ability to recreate in spaces long-designated for that purpose. We’ll keep an eye on this as it develops and provide updates when available. However it ends up, this is a slippery slope for the outdoor industry.
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