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The Utah Trail Machine Association is mounting a drive to designate a national off-road vehicle playground in the San Rafael Swell.

Without a doubt, it is the gravest threat ever against the magnificent Swell, a rugged desert formation of 900 or 1,000 square miles almost entirely in Emery County.This group's direct membership includes 3,000 off-road vehicle users and dealers, and it communicates with nearly 200,000 more in Utah. They have the interested attention of Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah.

Ron Stokes, American Fork, the association's president, said Thursday, "Jake Garn is sponsoring a bill for us to set aside - and we're not certain we have the parameters, we're not certain what portion yet - but he's going to sponsor a bill that will set aside a portion of the San Rafael Swell as a national off-highway vehicle area."

Did Garn make a definite commitment on that?

"Oh yes," Stokes said. "There's been an exchange of letters."

Laurie Snow, Garn's press secretary in Washington, said the senator wrote to Richard Brass of the Utah Trail Machine Association, saying he was sympathetic to their concerns about striking a balance between development and preservation.

"If they are interested in developing a bill or coming up with a concept of a bill, if they send it to us, the senator has said he would review it and consider introducing it as a bill," Snow said.

"At this point there is no bill written . . . but he has indicated he will work with the group." Garn will see if it's appropriate, she said.

The association asked for sponsors for its bill, and got support from some state legislators, Stokes said. Also, it was "in communication with him (Garn) and Jim Hansen," the GOP congressman from Utah's 1st District.

Garn wrote and said he'd be happy to support such a bill, Stokes said. "The maps have been submitted."

Where would this be designated?

"It's going to be a considerable portion of the San Rafael area," Stokes said. "It's going to take into the area that the wilderness people first tried to get it into a wilderness area and are now trying to get it into a national park area."

What about the charge that off-road vehicles harm the desert?

"We spend a lot time in spring and fall, when it isn't too hot, in those areas. We try to use the mountains in the summertime and the desert in the spring and fall.

"You can ride over the area with bikes - you know we're talking about soft-tired bikes, dirt bikes, or three and four wheelers - and soon as a windstorm or a rainstorm comes up, it's gone. And our tracks are obliterated."

Another ally claimed by the association were mentioned in the most recent issue of its newsletter, UTMA News: "But right now we have a governor who feels as we do about the rights of all citizens. Let's not make the mistake of losing him."

This story came to light through the efforts of Rudy Lukez, conservation chairman for the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club. He wrote to the Utah Trail Machine Association asking what they're up to.

He got a letter from Stokes postmarked July 22, saying, "We work most closely with Gov. Bangerter, Jake Garn, and Jim Hansen. They are strongly for multiple use of public lands as we are."

Lukez said he and other conservationists support the proposal for a protective designation of the Swell, such as a national park or monument plus wilderness areas.

"It'd be a very alarming thing to suddenly begin setting aside areas of that size and that uniqueness and that beauty to be a playground for off-road vehicles on public land," he said.

"It's very alarming if Sen. Garn is serious about this . . . He has to know that conservationists in Utah, and I think I speak for a majority, would work very hard to defeat this."

The designation of a San Rafael Swell ORV area would be an unmitigated disaster, he said.

The Swell is the last grand chunk of the Colorado Plateau remaining relatively untouched and almost totally unprotected. Home to bighorn sheep and hawks, porcupines and lizards, it's an outstanding natural region. The canyons, arches, mesas, rivers and deep gorges are matchless.

The most monstrous threat to its survival are the ORVs. They rip through vegetation, gouge trails deep in the soil crust, panic animals away from their springs, and leave permanent scars in the slickrock.

The Swell is national park quality. To claim that preventing vehicles from blasting through its delicate canyons is locking it up is like saying motorcycles should be allowed to drive through the State Capitol.