ST. GEORGE – Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, testified in a congressional hearing Wednesday supporting a bill he crafted with Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, in order to turn management of the popular Sand Mountain area over to the county, thus protecting continuing recreational use by off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and others.
Hatch and Stewart introduced the “Southern Utah Open OHV Areas Act” in April, and Wednesday it was put before the Senate’s Public Lands, Forest and Mining subcommittee.
“Down in Washington County, riding Off-Highway Vehicles, or OHVs, is an integral part of the local culture,” Hatch told the subcommittee. “It’s a way for people to get out and experience the region’s unique geography; it’s a beloved pastime for families in southern Utah; and it’s essential to the region’s tourism industry.”
Hatch visited Sand Mountain last summer and rode in an OHV with Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher.
“I had the wonderful opportunity to see first-hand the region’s trails, red rocks and dunes,” Hatch said.
The Sand Mountain Special Recreation Management Area is the only “open ride” area left in Washington County, Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said Tuesday when the commission held a special meeting to pass a resolution supporting the Southern Utah Open OHV Areas Act.
“A few year ago, there was a concern from the members of our county OHV community that the open ride protections around the Sand Mountain area weren’t absolute,” Deputy Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke said.
Plans made by the Bureau of Land Management aren’t exactly absolute, Clarke said, and pointed to the the federal agency’s recently produced resource management plans that he said already closed off a large amount of acreage to open ride use.
If it deemed it necessary, the BLM could close off Sand Mountain as an open ride area as it has done with other parts of the county, Cox said.
“Every time the (Bureau of Land Management) has done a (resource management plan), there’s been a decrease in open ride, never an expansion,” Cox said.
Hatch and Stewart’s bill will move around 20,000 acres that make up the Sand Mountain area and transfer it over to county management. That is to ensure it remains a special recreation area specifically open to OHV use.
The Sand Mountain area is not just made up of dunes but also rock formations. It is used by both individuals and organized events such as “Trail Hero” and the nonprofit “Winter 4×4 Jamboree,” drawing both locals and tourists.
Hatch testified in the hearing that Washington County officials estimated events and riding at Sand Mountain bring in $3 million into the local economy annually.
“But as I mentioned, even as the county grows at one of the highest rates in the country, access to open OHV areas is becoming increasingly limited,” Hatch said. He said:
To protect recreational access in the Hurricane Sand Dunes now and in the future, I have worked hard to establish a solution that enjoys the support of the county, OHV groups, the regional water conservancy district, and others … Areas where one can ride recreationally in Washington County have been diminishing over the last 30 years, and it is my hope that we can keep this area open for riding.
Additionally, the bill would allow landlocked plots of land overseen by the State Institutional and Trust Lands Administration within the recreation area to be traded for “more suitable” land in Warner Valley.
“I think this is exceptional,” Cox said of the bill.
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