Conservation Groups File Federal Lawsuit over BLM Decision to Allow County to Chip-Seal Utah’s Remote Burr Trail

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.

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