News Archives


  • May 23rd, 2019

    Decision Prioritizes Off-Road Vehicle Use over Threatened and Endangered Species

    Contact: Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney, 435-259-5440, kya@suwa.org

    Laura Peterson, Travel Management Attorney, 801-236-3762, laura@suwa.org

    Moab, UT (May 23, 2019) –  Without prior notice or opportunity for public input, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Richfield Field Office announced Wednesday that it is opening 5,400 acres of public lands surrounding Utah’s iconic Factory Butte to unfettered cross-country off-road vehicle (ORV) use.

    The BLM’s decision reverses a 2006 closure of the area to ORV use and will allow unrestricted motorized travel throughout the designated “play area.”

    Left: a spring wildflower bloom enhances Factory Butte’s unique photographic appeal. Right: Extensive ruts left by ORVs near Factory Butte remain visible even after torrential rainfall. Photo (c) Ray Bloxham/SUWA. Re-use with attribution permitted.

    The 2006 closure followed a petition filed with the BLM by SUWA outlining the devastating effects of unmanaged cross-country travel by ORVs. The closure was necessary to protect the federally-listed endangered Wright fishhook (Scierocactus wrightiae) and Winkler (Pediocactus winkleri) cacti from direct mortality due to cross-country ORV travel.

    SUWA has monitored the Factory Butte ORV closure area since 2006 and has documented ongoing and intentional ORV violations and associated damage to natural resources.

    “The BLM’s decision to allow destructive, unregulated cross-country motorized use on the remarkable public lands surrounding Factory Butte – one of Utah’s most well-known landmarks – is outrageous,” said Kya Marienfeld, SUWA Wildlands Attorney. “When the BLM rightly closed these lands to motorized use in 2006, it recognized that off-road vehicles are a significant threat to federally protected cactus species in the area. We don’t believe the BLM has done what it takes to make sure that the same damage doesn’t immediately resume.”

    “It’s remarkable that at a time when BLM has informed us that they’ll likely miss a court-ordered deadline to complete a new ORV travel plan for all of the Henry Mountains Field Station, including Factory Butte, they’ve somehow found the staff time and resources to open Factory Butte to off-road vehicle abuse immediately before Memorial Day weekend,” added SUWA Travel Management Attorney Laura Peterson. “With decreasing cactus populations and increasing ORV violations of the closure over recent years, its difficult to see how the agency expects any outcome other than once-again imperiling these listed species.”

    “SUWA has worked for more than 20 years to protect this place, and we don’t have any intention of walking away from it now,” said Marienfeld.

    Additional Resources:

    BLM press release on opening of off-road playground around Factory Butte.

  • May 14th, 2019

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

    Contact: Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 435-259-5440 kya@suwa.org 

    Salt Lake City, UT (May 14, 2019) – Last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) withdrew a 2018 decision authorizing the destruction of more than 2,500 acres of pinyon pine and juniper trees within the Desolation Canyon and Jack Canyon Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in the Tavaputs Plateau region of eastern Carbon County, Utah.  The BLM’s decision came on the heels of the filing of a lawsuit in federal district court by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) which challenged the removal project as unlawful and in violation of federal laws. 

    The BLM had proposed the destruction of the trees by mastication, a destructive and heavily surface-disturbing method of vegetation removal that involves uprooting trees where they stand and shredding them by means of a wood chipper/mulcher mounted to a large front-end loader, which is driven cross-country throughout a project area. 

    Cedar Ridge, within the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area on the Tavaputs Plateau, where the Bureau of Land Management had planned to remove pinyon pine and juniper trees via heavy machinery. Photo (c) Ray Bloxham/Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Re-use with attribution permitted.

    In its lawsuit, SUWA alleged that the BLM’s decision—to use heavy machinery including bullhog masticators to remove pinyon pine and juniper forests on the Tavaputs Plateau just one mile from the western rim of Desolation Canyon—violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the agency’s legal obligation not to “impair” wilderness suitability in designated WSAs.  

    Shortly after SUWA filed its lawsuit, the BLM withdrew its approval of all portions of the vegetation removal project that would have occurred within the Jack Canyon and Desolation Canyon WSAs. 

    In response to the BLM’s withdrawal of the project, SUWA Wildlands Attorney Kya Marienfeld issued the following statement: 

    “Although we certainly wish the BLM had made this decision sooner, it’s encouraging to see that the agency realizes the unlawful nature of its plans to masticate pinyon-juniper forest in two pristine and remote Wilderness Study Areas. We are pleased that the agency made the right decision to follow its mandate to protect these remarkable locations from harm and from all actions that impair their world class ecological and wilderness values.

    “Using large vehicles and heavy machinery—whether bullhog masticators or anchor chains—to systematically wipe out thousands of acres of forest is completely incompatible with the protection of wilderness values and the preservation of wildlands and ecosystems.”

    Far from the only project that threatens to destroy wilderness values and other remarkable resources in an alleged attempt to save those same values, the BLM recently approved a similar vegetation destruction project in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  SUWA and other conservation groups have appealed that decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. In addition, the BLM is actively considering several other similar projects in the monument and Utah’s west desert.

    Additional Resources:

    SUWA’s federal complaint.

    BLM documents from eplanning.blm.gov including withdrawal of the project within WSAs.

  • May 7th, 2019

    Good news! Following SUWA’s appeal of the BLM’s decision to sell eight oil and gas leases for development at its March 2018 sale, the BLM has reluctantly agreed with SUWA that their leasing decision violated the law!

    Hatch Point. Photo copyright Neal Clark/SUWA

    SUWA argued that the BLM failed to take the necessary “hard look” at greenhouse gas emissions and climate change before offering the leases for sale. In a motion filed with the Interior Board of Land Appeals last Friday, the BLM requested that the Board remand the issue back to the agency for further consideration, including additional environmental analysis. As a result, the leases cannot currently be developed for oil and gas!

    The leases included lands with wilderness characteristics in the Labyrinth Canyon, Hatch Wash/Hatch Canyon, and Goldbar Canyon areas near the Green River and Canyonlands National Park.

    This victory protects the wilderness values in each of those remarkable areas — and also strengthens SUWA’s ongoing efforts to challenge other leasing decisions in Utah in which BLM has made the same mistakes.

  • May 1st, 2019

    For Immediate Release

    Decision Made Under Cover of Darkness to Push Through Garfield County’s Long-Held Desire to Pave Remote Desert Dirt Road

    Contact: Stephen Bloch, Legal Director, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-428-3981 steve@suwa.org

    Phil Hanceford, Conservation Director, The Wilderness Society, 303-225-4636, phil_hanceford@tws.org

    Matt Abele, Communications Manager, National Parks Conservation Association, 510-851-3532, mabele@npca.org 

    Salt Lake City, UT (May 1, 2019) – The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the Wilderness Society, and National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) today filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Utah challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision to approve Garfield County, Utah’s request to chip-seal a seven and a half mile stretch of the remote Burr Trail near Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.

    The BLM’s decision was made on Friday afternoon, April 26, 2019. The BLM notified Garfield County that afternoon, and work began almost immediately; by 9 am Tuesday morning, April 30, more than 2/3rds of the project was completed; Garfield County had staged equipment and gravel near the area in advance of the BLM’s decision to expedite completion of the project. The BLM did not publicly announce their Friday decision until 2 pm, Monday, April 29, 2019. BLM’s deliberate effort to hide its decision from public scrutiny while giving the County the green light to begin paving was unethical.

    Reports indicate that the decision to approve the rushed Environmental Assessment (EA), which had a mere 15-day comment period, was made at the highest levels in Washington, DC. The final decision consists of a 10 page document that is nearly identical to the initial EA, suggesting that public comments were not considered. The BLM found that Garfield County’s request to chip-seal the road was “necessary,” even though the County has no adjudicated legal right of way on the Burr Trail road, and would have “no adverse impact” on surrounding wild lands, contrary to repeated concerns  raised by the National Park Service on earlier proposals to chip seal the same section of road.

    A portion of the Burr Trail is chip-sealed by road crews in Garfield County, Utah, east of Capitol Reef National Park, on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Photo (c) Ray Bloxham/Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Re-use with attribution permitted.

    Garfield County has sought to pave the Burr Trail for nearly 35 years. Under the Trump administration, their request was approved in less than 30 days, despite repeated denials of the request from previous Democratic and Republican administrations.

    “The chip-sealing of the Burr Trail near Capitol Reef National Park by Garfield County is proof that the state of Utah’s 20+ RS 2477 lawsuits, seeking title to rights of way over tens of thousands of miles of routes across federal public land in Utah, is driven by the desire to open up Utah wild lands to development,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director of the Southern Utah Alliance. “They literally want to pave it all.  Garfield County has now paved a stretch of dirt road in the middle of the desert. There is no better illustration of the state’s and counties’ true intentions behind their lawsuits seeking title to rights-of-way for remote routes traversing public lands in Utah. The fact that this decision was made from the very top by Trump officials in Washington, DC, is further proof that President Trump’s assault on Utah’s magnificent red rock wilderness persists.”

    A portion of the Burr Trail is chip-sealed by road crews in Garfield County, Utah, east of Capitol Reef National Park, on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Photo (c) Ray Bloxham/Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Re-use with attribution permitted.

    “The decision was rushed through to allow work to commence before the ink was dry and with no apparent consideration of public comments,” said Phil Hanceford, Conservation Director at The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “This is a disturbing way to conduct business on public lands that are owned by all Americans, especially when the BLM knew of the longstanding and contentious nature of this proposed action.”

    “Mile by mile, Garfield County has chip-sealed the Burr Trail up to the boundaries of Capitol Reef National Park with clear intent to continue right through the park boundary, up the iconic Burr Trail Switchbacks, to the other side,” said Cory MacNulty, Associate Director, Southwest Region of National Parks Conservation Association. “Maintaining unpaved access to the Waterpocket District is critical for the National Park Service to uphold its commitment to manage this area for its wilderness solitude and natural quiet, sense of backcountry adventure and discovery. With more than 15 million visitors drawn to Utah national parks each year, paving these areas will surely lead to significant increases in traffic, taking away from what makes these wild lands so special.”

    “Bisecting the wild and remote lands abutting Capitol Reef National Park and the Mt. Pennell Wilderness Study Area, the Burr Trail Road is dwarfed by towering 800-foot sandstone walls and the dramatic Waterpocket Fold. Its remote location makes it a critical refuge for unique flora and fauna, a home to rare geological features, and an oasis for the adventurous of heart. We know that paving these pristine wild lands is patently illegal and directly threatens the future of this unique and treasured place,” said Ashley Soltysiak, Director of the Utah Sierra Club, in a statement condemning the agency’s decision.

    Additional Resources:

    BLM documents from eplanning.blm.gov.

  • April 22nd, 2019

    For Immediate Release
    April 22, 2019

    Contact:
    Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3991, landon@suwa.org
    Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.859.1552, steve@suwa.org

    Salt Lake City, UT (April 22, 2019) The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) has filed a federal lawsuit challenging two decisions by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to offer, sell, and issue thirty-five oil and gas leases totaling 54,508 acres of public lands for development on the doorstep of Bears Ears, Hovenweep, and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments.

    The lawsuit, filed on Friday, April 19, 2019, aims to protect some of the most culturally and archaeologically rich public lands in the United States. These lands include cliff dwellings, pueblos, kivas, petroglyph and pictograph panels, and Chaco-era (circa 900-1150 A.D.) great houses. Numerous Native American tribes consider these sites sacred. The lawsuit challenges Utah-BLM’s March 2018 and December 2018 Monticello field office leasing decisions (March 2018 sale information here; December 2018 sale information here).

    “The Trump administration is following a well-worn path of ‘leasing first, and thinking later,’ the same approach taken by the George W. Bush administration’s ‘drill here, drill now’ policies,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.  “This approach, which has riddled Utah’s wild and culturally significant public lands with leases and should come as no surprise given that it’s the same political appointee – David Bernhardt – steering the Interior Department.”

    The BLM, in its rush for “energy dominance,” ignored concerns raised by the National Park Service (NPS), Native American tribes, and the public, including SUWA. For the March 2018 sale, the NPS (BLM’s sister-agency in the Department of the Interior tasked with the management of nearby national monuments) submitted written comments condemning the BLM’s leasing proposal as being uninformed and ill-advised (see here). NPS explained that the BLM had “not fully evaluated” and had “not acted” to address its concerns regarding impacts of oil and gas development to national monuments including impacts to national monuments, dark night skies, air quality, water quality, and cultural resources, among others.

    The All Pueblo Council of Governors and Pueblo of Acoma both submitted formal protests of BLM’s December 2018 leasing proposal (see, here, here). They explained that the BLM had failed to consider and analyze impacts to historic and traditional cultural properties and national monuments, among other resources. The Hopi Tribe similarly requested that BLM not offer these leases for oil and gas development (See, e.g., here).

    “The BLM has placed the final pieces, completing its puzzle of oil and gas leases located at the doorstep of Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “And the BLM has done so without considering the ‘big picture’ impacts to national monuments and climate change and the surrounding landscapes, including impacts to dark night skies and the region’s rich cultural heritage.”

    The Obama administration had declined to issue new oil and gas leases in this same area, citing the need to collect and analyze additional information and data regarding cultural resources, potential impacts to national monuments, and greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The BLM never collected or analyzed that information and data. However, without having collected or analyzed the information and data the agency previously determined to be necessary, the Trump administration has resumed leasing in this contested area and proceeded to build a mosaic of leases on the doorstep of these national monuments (see here).

    At the same time it has rushed to open up more lands for development, the Utah-BLM has also dutifully implemented the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda. Among other things, the BLM has taken steps to (1) eliminate opportunities for public engagement in the agency’s leasing decisions, (2) eliminate the agency’s obligation to fully analyze site-specific impacts of leasing and development, and (3) eliminate any additional BLM-identified “burden” on oil and gas leasing and development.

    SUWA’s lawsuit challenges the BLM’s failure to fully analyze the potential impacts of its leasing decisions, including to cultural resources, national monuments, climate change, and lands with wilderness characteristics. SUWA requests that the court set-aside and vacate the BLM’s leasing decisions and prohibit the BLM from approving future oil and gas development on the leases. Photographs of cultural and archaeological sites located on oil and gas leases at issue in this lawsuit are available here.

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