Near the town of Hanksville, Utah is a large geologic formation known as Factory Butte. At the intersection of the road that allows access to the area and the main highway is a signboard erected by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which administers the area. There are two pieces of paper attached to it. One informs visitors that the Factory Butte area is one of the most scenic and geologically fascinating places on the entire Colorado plateau. The other states that part of the area is an off highway vehicle (OHV) play area, and asks that OHV riders voluntarily stay on designated OHV trails when outside the “play area”. Upon reading this I imagined someone at the BLM office saying “This is one of the most beautiful places we have, so let’s open it to OHV use. Only the BLM could do something this ridiculous.
One look at the place makes it painfully obvious that not many OHV riders have volunteered to follow the trail restrictions. Much of the Factory Butte area, and roadsides all the way to Capitol Reef National Park, are laced with a spaghetti pattern of deep ruts and tire tracks. The OHVs have destroyed plant life along with much of the scenic beauty that used to exist around Factory Butte. Even the shape of the land is altered by changed erosion patterns from the deep ruts made by OHV tires. When I first began visiting Factory Butte in the late 1980s and early 1990s the place was beautiful and pristine. Since then much of it has been trashed by irresponsible OHVs riders.
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 proclaim 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 area. At the very least, OHV use off of designated trails outside the so-called OHV “play area” should be made strictly illegal, with stiff penalties for violators and more active enforcement by the BLM. During the several days I spent around Factory Butte I saw many OHV riders, but I did not see a single BLM patrol vehicle or BLM officer. The very idea that OHV riders will voluntarily stay on trails in this remote place is ridiculous. One look at the Factory Butte area is proof that the voluntary system has failed miserably. All of us pay for the irresponsibility of a few with the loss of our most unique public lands.
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 of 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 decades 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 were 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.
All-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes destroy the land over which they travel, along with everything that happens to live on it, transforming it into a true wasteland. 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 most standards it is unpleasant to be there and the OHVs have destroyed the scenery.
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 pristine lands in America to 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 unspoiled and 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 it very difficult to capture a nice photograph. 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 or so 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 open 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 normal people, they will protect one plant because a court ordered them to and then 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.
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