Conservation Groups Prioritize Protection of Utah’s Remote San Rafael Desert

Feb 16th, 2021 Written by suwa

Challenge Wildly Unbalanced Plan that Doubles Miles of Dirt Two-Tracks and Trails Open to Motorized Vehicles

Laura Peterson, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-236-3762,
Alison Flint, The Wilderness Society, 720-647-9491,

Salt Lake City, UT (Feb. 16, 2021) – Two conservation organizations filed suit today in federal district court in Utah challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s highly destructive motorized vehicle travel plan for the San Rafael Desert, a remote corner of Utah’s wild redrock desert. The Bureau approved the “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 “emphasizes maximum mileage available for OHV recreation” and more than doubled the miles of dirt two-tracks and trails for motorized use from 300 miles to more than 765 miles.

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society are asking the court to vacate the San Rafael Desert Travel Management Plan and direct the agency to re-do the travel plan in compliance with federal environmental laws.

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. (View photos here.)

“The San Rafael Desert Travel Management Plan represents some of the worst of the Trump Administration’s public land management priorities,” said Laura Peterson, staff attorney at Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Instead of accommodating the diverse array of public land resources and user groups and developing a reasonable travel plan that ensures access to public lands while preserving the backcountry, the Bureau’s travel plan does the opposite. It designates virtually any cow path, wash bottom and line on a map as open to off-road vehicles.”

Federal law requires the Bureau of Land Management 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 Bureau’s San Rafael Desert travel plan falls woefully short of meeting its legal obligation.

“The BLM’s short-sited plan designates an unmanageable spiderweb of routes that will forever change the San Rafael Desert, said Alison Flint, Senior Legal Director at The Wilderness Society. “Rather than minimize impacts to irreplaceable natural and cultural resources, the BLM’s travel plan prioritizes off-road vehicle use at the expense of both natural resources and other public land users.”

The San Rafael Desert travel plan is the first of thirteen travel plans that the Bureau of Land Management will complete over the next six years as a part of a court-supervised settlement agreement. These thirteen travel plans will determine where motorized vehicles will be allowed across millions of acres of federal public lands in some of Utah’s wildest public lands, including the Dirty Devil, San Rafael Swell and Vermillion Cliffs.