Federal appeals court rejects BLM’s request to delay cultural resource surveys

Jan 5th, 2016 Written by Steve Bloch

Just as we were about to say goodbye to 2015, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a welcome decision in our longstanding Utah resource management plan litigation. On December 30th the Circuit Court denied a request by the BLM to indefinitely delay surveys for cultural artifacts on lands under the purview of the Richfield field office, a course of action the agency admitted would have resulted in damage to — or outright destruction of — an untold number of irreplaceable cultural sites.

The Richfield office oversees 2.1 million acres of redrock country in south-central Utah, largely sandwiched between Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park. This land is held sacred by Native American tribes, including the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, the Navajo Nation, and the Hopi Tribe.

Mt. Ellen, Henry Mountains (Ray Bloxham)
Mt. Ellen proposed wilderness, Ray Bloxham/SUWA

Though less than 5 percent of this area has been surveyed for cultural resources, thousands of significant sites have been identified, including structures, ceramics, petroglyphs, and lithic scatters. In a land use plan adopted in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, the BLM gave the green light to ORVs to drive on more than 4,000 miles of trails and tracks without first surveying them to ensure that these irreplaceable cultural resources would not be harmed by such use.

The Tenth Circuit’s order is just the latest ruling in a string of rulings we have obtained which consistently reject how BLM manages ORVs in the Richfield area.

It’s confounding that the Obama administration continues to defend and implement land use planning decisions that are so wildly unbalanced in favor of ORV use and energy development over conservation – but that’s the way it’s been for the past seven years. Maybe things will be different in 2016 (hope springs eternal). SUWA and our partners have challenged all six land use plans issued at the end of the Bush administration in federal court. The Richfield plan is the first to be fully litigated.