BLM plan designated thousands of miles of ORV routes, placing iconic western landscapes at risk
SALT LAKE CITY–On Friday, May 22, the United States District Court for the District of Utah issued a long awaited ruling regarding the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Resource Management Plan and Off-Road Vehicle Travel Management Plan for the Richfield field office, specifically directing the agency to complete comprehensive cultural surveys and additional analyses over the next 1-3 years. This “remedy decision” book-ended a November 2013 decision which held that BLM’s plans violated several substantive laws, though the court deferred deciding what steps were needed to fix the plans until a second round of briefing on the appropriate remedy was completed.
Under the Richfield RMP and ORV Travel Plan, which covers lands between Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks, BLM designated over 4,200 miles of dirt roads and trails – enough miles to drive from Los Angeles to New York City and part way back – for ORV use. The BLM did so despite evidence of environmental damage to Utah’s unique redrock landscapes, damage to irreplaceable cultural resources, and conflicts with other public lands visitors.
A coalition of conservation groups led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and Earthjustice challenged the Richfield plans in an attempt to stem the ORV damage to Utah’s spectacular public lands. These plans threaten world-renowned southern Utah wilderness landscapes like the Dirty Devil Canyon complex (including Butch Cassidy’s infamous hideout, Robber’s Roost), the Henry Mountains (the last mountain range to be mapped in the lower 48 states) and Factory Butte. See photos here.
The court’s decision also raises serious questions about the legality of five other BLM management plans in the eastern half of Utah that suffer from similar legal flaws. The Richfield RMP is just one of six land use plans—covering more than 11 million acres of eastern and southern Utah—that the Interior Department finalized before the Bush administration left office in 2008. Each of the six plans is wildly unbalanced in favor of off-road vehicle use and energy development and threaten Utah’s renowned redrock country. The Obama administration has unfortunately continued to defend these plans, both in court and in practice. Conservationists have challenged all six plans in court. The Richfield RMP is the first of the six to be litigated.
“These important decisions flatly reject Utah BLM’s ‘designate trails first, think later’ approach to off-road vehicle management,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “By setting forth strict timelines for BLM to undertake long overdue inventories for cultural sites and prepare necessary environmental analyses, the court has sent a clear message that the status quo is not acceptable. Utah’s remarkable redrock landscapes demand better.”
“BLM has been ignoring its mandate to minimize environmental harm from ORV abuse since the Nixon administration, when the ORV rules took effect,” said Heidi McIntosh, Managing Attorney of Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “The court’s strict deadline is a wake up call that will finally force BLM to do its job and protect this magnificent expanse of scenic redrock country.”
“This decision reinforces the court’s previous ruling that BLM must take protection of natural and cultural resources seriously,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel for The Wilderness Society. “The BLM should stop seeking to avoid its responsibilities and move forward with addressing the serious flaws in these 6 plans, fulfilling its obligations as steward of these 11 million acres of public lands and committing to meaningful conservation.”
“BLM’s refusal to conduct on-the-ground inventories for cultural resources that are being damaged and destroyed from off-road vehicle use was shocking,” said Bill Hedden, Executive Director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Federal law requires BLM to do more to protect these irreplaceable cultural treasures and we’re pleased that the judge ordered BLM to do so.”
Specifically, Judge Kimball:
Directed BLM to prepare new analyses over the next 1-3 years documenting that the agency’s off-road vehicle designations minimize impacts to a number of specific resources, including wildlife, non-motorized recreation, and riparian areas.
- Directed BLM to prepare new analyses over the next 1-3 years documenting that the agency’s off-road vehicle designations minimize impacts to a number of specific resources, including wildlife, non-motorized recreation, and riparian areas.
- Directed BLM to complete intensive, on-the-ground surveys for historic and cultural resources over the next 1-3 years for all designated routes.
- The Court agreed with SUWA that BLM should begin its work with all routes in the area between Capitol Reef National Park, the Henry Mountains and the Green River. This work must be completed within one year of the Court’s May 22, 2015 order.
- Directed BLM to provide SUWA with copies of the agency’s annual ORV monitoring reports, documentation BLM has largely failed to prepare since it completed the Richfield plan in 2008. BLM is required to provide SUWA with these reports over the three-year remedial period.
- Directed BLM to issue a new decision within six months on whether to designate the Henry Mountains as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern—which would give heightened protection to its bison herds and large expanses of remote, spectacularly scenic lands.
- Directed BLM to issue a new decision within the next year on whether Happy Canyon and portions of Buck and Pasture Canyons are eligible for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Background information on the Richfield RMP can be found on SUWA’s website. Photographs of the proposed wilderness areas at risk in the Richfield field office are also available. In 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune and New York Times panned the Richfield RMP, raising many of the same flaws identified in the court’s decisions.
The conservation groups challenging the BLM’s 2008 land use plans in Utah include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Utah Rivers Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, National Trust for Historic Preservation and Rocky Mountain Wild.
The groups are represented by attorneys Heidi McIntosh and Robin Cooley of Earthjustice, Stephen Bloch and David Garbett of SUWA, and by Robert Wiygul of Waltzer, Wiygul and Garside. Attorneys Nada Culver and Alison Flint of The Wilderness Society were also a part of the groups’ legal team.