When I first visited Factory Butte in late 1980s and early 1990s it was relatively pristine. The BLM (Bureau of Land Management, aka Bureau of Logging and Mining) had erected a sign board at the intersection of the main highway and the dirt road that allows access to the area. On it were two pieces of paper. One proclaimed this to be among the most geologically unique and scenic areas administered by the BLM. The other contained a map showing that most of the area was open to OHVs and ATCs. It also said that that riders should voluntarily stay out of closed areas. I imagined some nitwit at BLM saying "This is one of the most unique and beautiful areas we have, so we should open it up to motorized cross country travel." How's that for screwed up logic? At the time there were not enough ATV and ATC riders tearing up the place to have an enormous impact, but they were definitely not volunteering to stay out of the closed areas. A decade later it was between difficult and impossible to take a photo without tire tracks in it, and it was depressing to see all of the destruction.
The BLM administers vast tracts of land in Utah and all across the western states. It is unimaginable that they would deliberately concentrate OHV use in an area they proclaimed to be one of the most unique and scenic places they administer. The BLM should ideally eliminate OHV use in this fantastic place, and if necessary, move it to some less unique and less sensitive place. At the very least, OHV use off of designated trails should be strictly illegal, with stiff penalties for violators and active enforcement by the BLM. I have seen scores of OHV riders around Factory Butte, but in all my time there I have never seen a single BLM officer on patrol. The very idea that OHV riders will voluntarily stay on trails in this remote place when there is no chance of running into law enforcement is just stupid. The state of the Factory Butte area in 2005 is proof that the voluntary system failed completely.
John Dohrenwend, a retired U.S. Geological Survey geologist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, says the OHV-related damage in Factory Butte is very real. His research reveals accelerated levels of erosion on Factory Butte hillsides from OHV use, and significant damage to the crust on the area's Mancos Shale, which he says could take decades to repair. Dohrenwend fears that continued soil damage in the area will eventually increase salinity levels in the Colorado River system, potentially impacting water quality for riparian areas and downstream users. Commenting on off-roading in the area he said "I can appreciate that it's probably a helluva lot of fun, but the consequences are extreme."
There are several organizations, like the Utah Shared Access Alliance, lobbying hard to completely open Factory Butte and other public lands to unrestricted cross-country motorized travel. They claim to want public lands open for use by all people. This sounds very inclusive if one forgets that the "use" they propose destroys the land for any purpose except their own. Unless someone wants to photograph tire tracks, photography is pointless in an area that many of these vehicles have “used”. Sightseers, hikers, and backpackers certainly do not want to spend time in pulverized, eroded, and dusty terrain while the sounds of OHV engines ring in their ears. So who is it, exactly, that would want to be in the area along with the ATV and ATC folk? For most of us, "use" of public lands does not mean altering or destroying those lands in a way that takes a decade or longer to heal. Such is not the case with the off-road crowd. They believe that because they like riding OHVs the public owes them land to destroy with them. If my hobby was driving bulldozers, should I be allowed to do it on the public's land? As stupid and ridiculous as this sounds, the principal is identical.
While I'm writing about this, it's a common falsehood that the tire tracks disappear after the first rain. If that was the case, I wouldn't see the same tracks in off limits areas year after year. It also does not account for the fact that the tracks channel rain water which easily erodes the pulverized soil and deepens the tracks! That is especially true when the tracks are parallel to the slope of an incline, which is often the case. The only tracks that might vanish after a heavy rain are those on flat ground that has been run over countless times, the resulting powder compacted, then swollen and eroded by rain, then left to dry. Speaking of erosion, the soil forms a crust that minimizes the dust and somewhat stabilizes the soil when it rains. Driving over the soil turns it to powder that easily washes away in the rain. Take a look at some photos taken by the ATC and OHV folk, and see what you think. Some of those places on ridge tops have eroded to several feet deep! That's not going away in the next rain.
All-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes destroy the land over which they travel, along with everything that happens to live in or on it, transforming it into a true wasteland. This is especially true around Factory Butte, where the soil is quite soft. The land and its inhabitants can cope with a few of these vehicles on infrequent occasions, but when large numbers of them constantly use an area, that area essentially becomes one huge tire track. Still, groups like Utah Shared Access Alliance want people to be able to ride these things totally unrestricted on public lands. They realize that by "using" public land in this way they take it over as their own. Others no longer go to these places because by normal standards it is unpleasant to be there.
These single-interest lobbying groups also conveniently forget that every American citizen, including curmudgeons in Ohio and old ladies in New York City, own these federal lands and support them with tax dollars. In fact people in New York and other populous places contribute more dollars to support these lands than anyone else. Do the majority of these people want to fund the conversion of our few remaining pristine lands into ATV playgrounds? I don't think so. Of course ATV folk are citizens too, so perhaps they should get some land to wreck. The point is that it need not be the most spectacular land in the United States.
If you believe the propaganda distributed by the OHV people, anyone who does not care to have vehicles that sound like chainsaws marauding over every square inch of the landscape is an "environmental extremist". Those who want to take over the public's land as their own, turn it into a lifeless wasteland, and plunder the scenery causing erosion, pollution, and noise in the process, are not extremists. I guess it's all a matter of perspective. Regardless, they are smart enough to know they cannot tell the truth and say they want to wreck a place in the name of having fun. That, I think, is the reason they instead preach inclusion of all people, mostly themselves. “We only want to “use” the land too, along with everyone else. Why are we excluded?” they cry. They are trying to insinuate that their "use" of the land is like walking on a trail or fishing in a river, and that is simply a lie.
There are certainly areas that are not geologically unique, environmentally sensitive, or insanely scenic that can be set aside for unrestricted ATV and ATC use. I don't want to keep these non-extremists from tearing up dirt and having fun, I'd just prefer they don't wreck the best places left in America when they do it. Huge areas in this country have been decimated by strip mining, for instance. Can’t the off-road crowd “use” those? Their ATVs can't do anything worse than the bulldozers have already done. In places like these they can spin out, do wheelies, and tear up ground until the tread is worn from their knobby tires, without further destroying anything in the process. It’s something to think about, at least.
January 7, 2018 Update: After I wrote the essay above in 2005 I did not visit Factory Butte for a few years, though I drove past it on the highway a number of times. Aside from the destruction being depressing, it made photography pointless. I knew the BLM restricted OHV use to an area immediately adjacent to Factory Butte called "Swing Arm City" in 2006. That area has since become utterly and completely devastated. Its entire surface is completely pulverized, incredibly dusty, and the whole thing is essentially one enormous tire track. In 2016 I decided to again make a tour around Factory Butte, to areas other than "Swing Arm City". I did not expect much, but I was surprised to see how much improvement had occurred in a decade without OHVs. Some old eroded tracks are still visible and there are some fresh illegal tracks left by destructive nitwits, but overall things were much better. This was reason for optimism until I saw a sign telling that the area may again be opened to cross country OHV travel. Basically, if OHV riders stay off the area for the time being, the BLM will fence off some plants and allow them to destroy everything else. How's that for moronic BLM "logic"? Instead of managing and protecting this place in a reasonable way so it could be enjoyed by most people, they will protect two plant species because a court ordered them to and let the rest be destroyed with BLM's blessing. As I described above, it will become an "OHV only" area because the OHV folks will wreck it for everyone else, as is always the case. You can see the sign for yourself here.
June 5, 2019 Update: On Wednesday, May 22, 2019 the BLM opened 5,400 acres around Factory Butte to destructive use by OHV riders. The BLM press release states that together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service they will "...ensure recreation and conservation activities here remain compatible and sustainable." In truth they are talking about a single recreation activity, OHV riding, which drives all other recreational users away. Factory Butte is just one more part of America to be spoiled in the last couple of years, along with the former Bear's Ears National Monument and Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. Utah's national parks are still physically intact, but relentless promotion of tourism by state and local Chambers of Commerce has made all of them more like going to Disney World, if Disney World had limited parking, narrow trails, a couple of pit toilets, and 2 hour lines at the gate.
For decades Utah and its national parks, especially Arches and Canyonlands, were my favorite places on earth. As they became increasingly overdeveloped and overcrowded they eventually became not worth visiting. Increasingly I turned to more isolated and remote places like those mentioned in this essay. They are in fact among the last such places in America, and I mourn their loss.
OHV: Off Highway Vehicle, includes ATVs, ATCs, and others.
ATV: All Terrain Vehicle, usually a small three or four wheeled vehicle with relatively large knobby tires
ATC: All Terrain Cycle, essentially motorcycles equipped for off-road use.
BLM Contact Information:
Henry Mountains Field Station
Sue Fivecoat, Field Station Manager
380 South 100 West
Hanksville, UT 84734
Richfield Field Office
Joelle McCarthy, Field Manager
150 East 900 North
Richfield, UT 84701
Bureau of Land Management
Utah State Office
440 West 200 South, Suite 500
Salt Lake City, Utah 84101
Phone: (801) 539-4001
Ed Roberson, State Director
Bureau of Land Management
1849 C Street NW, Rm. 5665
Washington DC 20240
Michael D. Nedd