The Grand County Commission passed an ordinance Tuesday, July 6 by a 4-3 vote prohibiting illegal slacklining, e-biking, and other activities, as well as speech that encourages such behaviors.
Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan presented the ordinance to the commission, which she said state law enforcement and county staffers including Bill Jackson, who oversees maintenance of county properties and roads, had requested.
Sloan told the commission during the Tuesday meeting that the county was “having an issue
“We were having an issue,” Sloan said, “not just with slackliners, where you might have folks on Instagram bragging about how their buddy is doing something illegal — and we see that all the time — but we also have the e-bike issues. We also have a hard time ticketing folks who are clearly encouraging illegal use of e-bikes on trails on federal lands.”
Where is slacklining illegal?
Sloan said that it was already illegal in Grand County for people to slackline between “manmade improvements, including critical infrastructure,” but local and state law enforcement have not issued citations for doing so.
“You could cite them under nuisance; you could cite them under vandalism, all sorts of things. We haven’t been able to get law enforcement to do that without it being clear,” Sloan said.
The specific language of the county ordinance mirrors that of state code, criminalizing a person who “solicits, requests, commands, encourages, or intentionally aids another person to engage in conduct which constitutes an offense,” and the person who encourages the illegal behavior can be penalized as a party to the crime itself.
The new county ordinance uses the same language but applies only to violations of Grand County’s ordinances related to public lands. Those violations now explicitly include “attaching, using, or maintaining any wire, rope, swing, webbing, or slackline to any improvements” on county, state, or federal lands.
The ordinance does not ban slacklining between trees or other natural features on county, state, or federal lands; it only addresses improvements. Put another way, it only prohibits attaching to county-, state-, or federally-owned structures.
However, separate regulations by the state and federal governments prohibit slacklining in certain protected areas regardless of anchor points. For example, Arches National Park has a total ban on slacklining.
Within city limits, Moab permits slacklining only on designated posts in Swanny Park and next to the BMX park on the Mill Creek Pathway. Trees on city property may not be used for slacklining.
Encouraging illegal use of public lands
The county ordinances already criminalized use of e-bikes on non-motorized trails owned by the state or federal government. The change now makes it a crime to encourage illegal e-biking, which Sloan said is meant to address any rental outlet that “aids and abets” illegal use of non-motorized trails.
“We will not prosecute an e-bike rental outlet if they are acting in good faith; however, if an e-bike business repeatedly and publicly aids and abets illegal use on non-motorized trails in Grand County, we reserve the right to revoke their business license and or prosecute them criminally,” Sloan said.
Sloan said the same would go for people who criminal prosecution of encouraging illegal slacklining.
“We reserve the right to criminal prosecute aiding and abetting illegal activity in Grand County, or action that repeatedly attempts to thwart local laws,” Sloan said. “We have no intent to pursue innocent activity such as sharing a rad photo on Instagram.”
What is the idea?
Sloan initially told commissioners that local and state law enforcement had requested the ordinance. She later said Moab City Police Chief Bret Edge was “not involved in county ordinances” and Sheriff Steve White “did not specifically request the amendments” to the county ordinance.
Sloan also said that she had engaged Sheriff White and his chief deputy on the issue, complaints about slacklining, “a pending matter related to theft and other illegal activity,” and issues with signs at the bridge getting stolen.
She added that the part of the ordinance criminalizing encouragement of illegal activity was the idea of county staffers, not law enforcement.
“The issue has come up internally with departments responsible for code and business licensing enforcement,” Sloan said.
Grand County Commission Administrator Chris Baird during the meeting encouraged the commission to implement some kind of rule that prohibits encouraging illegal e-biking, which he said some local businesses currently do with impunity.
“A lot of the illegal activity that we say with respect to illegal use of trails and e-bikes: It has been compelled by individuals who know better,” Baird said. “They know that they are, I think, telling their customers — telling folks — to go ride these areas that they know are not legal [to ride on with e-bikes].”
Political speech and homelessness
Grand County Commissioner Sarah Stock voted against the ordinance, expressing concern over both the provision explicitly prohibiting slacklining from artificial structures and the provision against encouraging such behavior.
“This really concerns me as an activist and organizer,” Stock said of the language about encouraging people to attach ropes or similar objects to manmade structures. She added later it would “criminalize the training in direct action tactics — talking about attaching to bridges or anything like that.
“I know people who do that; I know people who have been targeted by that sort of thing. I just don’t want to increase the possibility that folks are being blamed for other people’s behavior and also being censored in that way.”
To the part of the ordinance about slacklining and attaching ropes, Stock said “I worry that, when we are drafting laws and ordinances, the intent is not always used by officers when citing people. The way I read this, it seems like you could cite someone for tying a tarp, if they are a houseless person, to the bridge.”
Using versus protecting public lands
Andy Lewis, who is based in Moab, is known for his social media presence, particularly on Instagram. He creates content about his BASE jumping, slacklining, and other extreme sport exploits.
Smith said after the ordinance passed that the new and preexisting rules in Moab limiting the use of manmade structures in slacklining constituted a “valiant attempt to control a situation that needs no control.”
Smith said that he didn’t know whether elected officials realized that Moab is “an iconic town in the world for slacklining — and they are spitting in our faces.”
Grand County Commissioner Trisha Hedin said that, in her background as a climber, she had seen climbers doing illegal activity that “affected the community” and the ability of climbers to access parts of the county. She also said that encouraging such behavior puts people at risk.
“Some of that encouragement, whether it’s Instagram or Facebook or literally advertisers — in the case that I’m talking about, it was Patagonia — they put people at risk.” Hedin said. “I think you guys are kind of stuck on this activism piece, and you’re not thinking about the harm it’s doing to our natural resources.”
What about sarcasm?
During discussion of the ordinance Sloan proposed, Grand County Commissioner Evan Clapper — an outdoor guide on his time outside of commission duties — said in passing during the meeting that he thought it was “fun to slackline over rivers,” to which Sloan said “the [Colorado River pedestrian bridge] was not made for that.”
Later in the meeting, Walker pointed to Clapper’s comment as one that could possibly be construed as illegal encouragement under the ordinance the county later passed.
“I disagree with his statements, but I don’t know that he should be criminally liable for them, in that hypothetical example,” Walker said.
Following the meeting, Walker said that he ultimately voted for the ordinance because the part of the code about encouraging illegal behavior mirrored language in state code, so the county wasn’t “breaking new ground,” and he saw the potential harms of the section as “somewhat speculative.”
Walker said he would be in favor of amending the code in the future to narrow its focus, but he didn’t think it would be necessary.
The final vote tally
Voting in favor of the ordinance were Grand County Commissioners Hedin Walker, Mary McGann, and Jacques Hadler. Voting against the ordinance were Commissioners Stock, Clapper, and Gabe Woytek.
In a separate vote, Clapper supported the part of the ordinance criminalizing encouragement of illegal conduct on public lands, but he later voted against the ordinance as a whole.