Bureau of Land Management Revises Destructive Motorized Plan in San Rafael Desert

Nov 1st, 2022 Written by suwa

Bureau of Land Management Revises Destructive Motorized Plan in San Rafael Desert

120 Miles of Nonexistent, Redundant and Reclaimed Motorized Routes Removed


Contact: Laura Peterson, Staff Attorney, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-236-3762, 

Salt Lake City, UT (November 1, 2022) —On Friday, October 28, the Bureau of Land Management (“Bureau” or “BLM”) took overdue corrective action and revised the San Rafael Desert Travel Management Plan to close 120 miles of erroneously designated off-road vehicle (ORV) routes in the remote San Rafael Desert area of southeastern Emery County. As the BLM acknowledged, the wrongly designated routes are reclaimed, redundant or nonexistent on the ground. It also agreed there was no public purpose or need for these ORV routes.

The Bureau approved the original “San Rafael Desert Travel Management Plan” in the last few months of the Trump administration and selected the most radical management scheme for this area. By the agency’s own account, its plan emphasized maximum mileage available for ORV recreation and more than doubled the miles of dirt two-tracks and trails for motorized use from 300 miles to more than 765 miles. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) challenged that unbalanced plan in federal court in 2021 and alleged the plan violated several federal environmental laws. SUWA and the BLM settled that lawsuit in February 2022. As part of that agreement, the Bureau agreed to reconsider the designation of around 190 miles of ORV routes in wilderness-quality lands within the San Rafael Desert. 

“We’re pleased to see the BLM decided to revise the San Rafael Desert plan to reflect what was evident all along: under the prior administration, it designated a significant number of routes for motorized use that just didn’t exist on the ground,” said Laura Peterson, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Removing these routes from the travel plan means that some of the San Rafael Desert’s wildest corners will remain just that way – without the sight and sound of motorized vehicles.”

Federal law requires the BLM to minimize impacts to natural and cultural resources when designating motorized vehicle routes. The agency must demonstrate that it has done so for both every route designated, and the travel plan as a whole. This includes minimizing damage to soils, watershed, vegetation, wildlife habitat, and cultural sites; minimizing the harassment of wildlife as well as conflicts between different public land user groups; and minimizing impacts of motorized vehicle routes on wilderness values like naturalness and solitude. 

The San Rafael Desert is a sublime area of Utah’s backcountry, encompassing the newly-designated Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness and wilderness-quality lands such as Sweetwater Reef and the San Rafael River. It features stunning redrock canyons, important cultural sites, and an outstanding diversity of native species, many found nowhere else but this corner of Utah. 

The San Rafael Desert Travel Management Plan is one of 11 such plans totaling more than six million acres of federal public lands in Utah that the BLM is required to finalize by 2024. 

Additional Resources

Story map of the San Rafael Desert Travel Management Plan.

Photos and video of erroneously designated routes in the San Rafael Desert.

BLM Decision Record: Reconsideration of Routes as Required by the 2022 Settlement Agreement