Federal lands make up the majority of Utah's landscape, so it shouldn't be surprising that state roads crisscross those lands. But when a state road crosses a national park, and that road is going to be traversed by a bike race, should National Park Service approval be required?
That's the question that arises in light of a professional cycling tour that will wind its way through Utah early next month. Along its 586 miles, the Tour of Utah will cross sections of both Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park. In doing so, it will negotiate state roads -- Utah 143, which crosses a sliver of Cedar Breaks, and Utah 12, which crosses Bryce Canyon north of that park's wondrous hoodoo-filled amphitheaters.
While a proposed professional bike race through Colorado National Monument outside Grand Junction, Colorado, has generated great debate, the Tour of Utah so far has been largely overlooked. Now, however, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is curious about whether the National Park Service has "abandoned its authority to regulate and oversee conduct on state-numbered roads that traverse the two parks. "
Don't be surprised if the Tour of Utah matter gains more and more attention. After all, if the Park Service continues to take a hands-off approach on it, promoters of other events who want to involve iconic parkscapes in their plans could point to it as a precedent-setting decision that would justify their plans.
Is the Park Service, as PEER maintains, standing quietly back when it comes to the Tour of Utah simply because the race will follow state-branded highways? If so, would the Park Service permit a similar bike race down U.S. 191, which passes through a section of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park? Would the agency authorize a bike race across Great Smoky Mountains National Park via U.S. 441, aka the Newfound Gap Road, or around Acadia National Park via State Route 3?
In a letter last week to Intermountain Regional Director John Wessels, PEER officials argue that the Park Service can't simply step away from the Tour of Utah issue because the race will follow state roads.
"If that is the case, this retreat has significant implications not only for Bryce and Cedar Breaks but for every area of the National Park System," wrote Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.
"PEER is concerned that the NPS has adopted this position to avoid having to either permit or deny the race. Saying 'yes' or 'no' would engender controversy," he went on. "So, instead, you have decided that the NPS simply has 'no say so' over the activity, despite the fact that the roads lie on federally-owned lands within the boundaries of two national park system units. The NPS role now appears to be that of helpless bystander with no authority over public, or state-sanctioned, activity on the road surface.
"This seemingly minor inaction may be a portentous abdication of NPS authority and responsibility to protect the nation’s parks. You cannot dismiss the broad implications of your decision," wrote Mr. Ruch.
Mr. Wessels did not immediately respond to the Traveler's request for comment.
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo said PEER was raising some very pertinent questions.
"The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees is very concerned about the changing and mixed public messages the National Park Service has issued since November 2012, regarding the USA Pro Challenge, the professional bike race proposed for Colorado National Monument by local race organizers in Grand Junction," Ms. Anzelo said Monday in an email. "A November news release issued by the NPS included language about relooking at the pro bike race. CNPSR met with NPS officials in December expressing our concerns on this issue and later in March sent a letter to regional director, John Wessels and Director Jon Jarvis to underscore our position."
In that March letter, the Coalition noted that "(P)rofessional bike races, with the huge negative impacts they entail, do not belong in any unit of the National Park System. The agency has repeatedly denied these kinds of events in various national park units. It makes absolutely no sense to re-open this debate."
As for the Tour of Utah event, the retirees again questioned the Park Service's failure to clearly articulate its position on the event.
"Even if the race takes place exclusively on state roads in Utah, it would have been helpful for the National Park Service to work with the race organizers to issue a clear public message regarding the Tour of Utah and why it is being permitted on roads in the two park units," Ms. Anzelo wrote. "Instead, the Tour of Utah grabbed headlines by promoting the race as coming to Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks. Their publicity misleads the public and that could have been avoided if the National Park Service had proactively worked to help jointly craft the message with the Tour of Utah race organizers.
"The proponents for the USA Pro Challenge in Grand Junction are well aware of the inconsistency by the National Park Service and will use the agency's inconsistency to try and gain a leg of the pro race on Historic Rim Rock Drive inside of Colorado National Monument for a future USA Pro Challenge," she added.
According to PEER's analysis of the matter, Park Service regulations that govern all special events "apply on all federal lands and waters within the boundaries of all parks, including on the roads within Bryce and Cedar Breaks."
And those regulations require "a full environmental review" of such events, the group continued in its letter to Mr. Wessels.
"The NPS has full authority on the roadways that cross federally-owned lands in Bryce and Cedar Breaks, including the authority to govern special events taking place there," the letter went on. "There is no doubt State Routes 12 and 143 lie upon and cross federally-owned park lands. A long series of court cases have upheld the NPS authority to regulate conduct under the Organic Act of 1916 (16 U.S.C 3) upon roadways that cross federal lands.
"...Pretending that the NPS has no power over the bike race to sidestep a potentially controversial decision is a sign of a confused and failed leadership. More importantly, it reduces longstanding protections for our nation’s parks."
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees agreed.
"The Coalition urges the National Park Service to require all NPS units to operate consistently across the National Park System and adhere to the Code of Federal Regulations and the current Management Policies when evaluating permit applications for mega sporting events like pro races," wrote Ms. Anzelmo. "In most instances, these large scale sporting events present huge negative impacts for fragile park resources and close off sections of parks to regular park visitors who are not there to watch pro sporting events."