Is National Park Service Abrogating Its Responsibility With The Tour Of Utah Bike Race?

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."

Comments

It's pretty clear that the critics have absolutely no idea how such a race works. If all goes to plan the Tour of Utah itself will spend maybe about 20 minutes in Bryce Canyon NP, even less in Cedar Breaks. Yes, 20 minutes. Roads will be closed some time before and after the actual passage of the peloton. But apart from that nothing is happening there. No infrastructure will be build there, no huge extra number of visitors will show up, not a single car or bicycle will leave the tarmac - so what are the

"negative impacts for fragile park resources"

exactly? This is a great opportunity to advertise two great NPS sites. Those critics should dedicate their opposition more to subjects like noisy motorcycles, RVs etc. - they pass through the parks 24/7, every day of the year, in masses.

Recognizing that each case is different, are these Park roads? Does NPS have authority to regulate their use? What's the legal basis of PEER's assertion?

Utah state route 12 was established in 1917, and the 1924 legislation establishing Bryce Canyon NP explicitly affirms pre-existing rights-of-way (16 USC 1 subchapter 45 paragraph 402) and does not assert exclusive Federal jurisdiction (unlike some other early national parks). Does NPS own, regulate and maintain this as a Park road?

Ownership of a road right-of-way and ownership of the underlying land are two quite distinct things!

You do not need to get off the road when motorcycles and RVs come through, Gila. The argument is not about the mode of transportation, anyway. It is about a group of people coming through the Park, whether it be on legs or tires or boards, that makes it mandatory for everyone to get out of their way. That is the part that doesn't bode well. I do not understand the NPS giving way on this unless it is because of it being a State road, as mentioned. The road in Colorado - is that a Park Road or a State road. That might be the difference in the decision.

PEER loves to play chicken little whenever something bike related comes up. No surprise there.

Seems a bit of a stretch. I'd note that US-101 goes through parts of Olympic NP, Redwood NP, and Golden Gate NRA. State routes in California mostly end at NPS boundaries, although they do go through other federal lands. Tioga Road in Yosemite NP actually joins different parts of CA-120.

Utah Route 12 looks like it's not near any entrance facilities and has one trailhead for a short out and back trail. If the state built the road, maintains it, and has sole authority over it, then I'm not sure what NPS can do. That it was hands off would seem to be the right choice. This is not the same as allowing a pro race within Yosemite Valley or Colorado NM.

National Parks are not for the exclusive use of environmentalists.

Our National Parks are not the place for games to be played.

Random Walker, are those parks new age cathedrals where one must only go to worship?

The Coalition of Retired NPS Employees is a reputable organization the can speak from hundreds of years of experience managing our National Parks at every management level. Their viewpoint, I think, is always worth considering. Ditto's PEER. In fact, if you are a federal employee in any agency that has been faced with outright malfeasance (and worse) from top level management, PEER is the group you will want to contact for support and legal assistance. Thank you PEER for your efforts.