Searching for Balance and Quiet in Utah’s Wilderness

Anyone who hikes the canyons and plateaus of southern Utah will inevitably hear the whine of off-road vehicles (ORVs) or see their telltale scars across the landscape.

While ORVs provide outdoor recreation for some, they can have a disproportionately large impact on public land resources and other recreationists. The use of ORVs in Utah has nearly doubled in the last fifteen years. The proliferation of these machines on public lands—in Utah and across the West—does more than just shatter the peace and quiet of the backcountry. It leads to stream erosion and water pollution, dust and soil erosion, destruction of wildlife habitat, damage to archaeological sites, and increased conflicts between public land users.

Watch this short 2 1/2 minute film to learn more about the Bureau’s Travel Management plans.

For decades the BLM did little to regulate the use of ORVs on public lands, even within areas proposed for wilderness designation. Finally, in 2008, six Utah BLM offices—Moab, Monticello, Richfield, Price, Vernal and Kanab—issued travel plans that limited ORV use to designated routes. Although a step in the right direction, the BLM’s ORV route designations failed to comply with federal laws enacted to protect archaeological resources or with the agency’s own regulations requiring ORV routes to be located to minimize impacts to natural and cultural resources and minimize conflicts with other users.

As part of our work on ORVs, SUWA challenged the six ORV travel plans issued by the BLM in 2008, based on the agency’s failure to comply with federal laws to protect public lands and resources from damage caused by ORV use. The federal district court agreed with SUWA on the first of these challenges. After that victory, SUWA entered into negotiations with the BLM to resolve the remaining travel plan challenges. In January 2017, SUWA and our conservation partners signed a settlement agreement with the BLM and three ORV groups.

Scars and dust created by off-road vehicles in the Factory Butte proposed wilderness. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

Scars and dust created by off-road vehicles in the Factory Butte proposed wilderness. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

Under the settlement agreement, the BLM must complete 13 new ORV travel management plans over 8 years, covering more than 6 million acres of BLM-managed lands in eastern and southern Utah. In this new travel planning process, the BLM must engage in a transparent process that expressly considers “lands with wilderness character,” sensitive natural resources, and cultural resources. The agency must also seek to minimize impacts to those unique resources in its designation of ORV routes. This new travel planning process is ongoing and SUWA is engaging with the BLM every step of the way to ensure that the agency is complying with its regulatory mandates.

The forthcoming travel plans are an opportunity to develop reasonable, manageable and forward-thinking blueprints that ensure public access while preserving the backcountry and minimizing damage. This new planning process gives the BLM a second chance to get things right, providing access to trailheads, scenic overlooks, and recreation opportunities while protecting the reason people want to drive to such remote areas in the first place: to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of Utah’s unparalleled public lands.

Much has changed in the decade since the BLM released its flawed travel plans. Visitation to Utah has skyrocketed—fueled by the State of Utah’s advertising campaign and the rise of social media—and shows no sign of diminishing. More people are seeking out new types of recreation as technology changes: today’s ORVs are designed to go more places faster than ever before. We are also grappling with a climate crisis, bringing new challenges to Utah’s public land managers. Precisely because of these challenges, thoughtful and deliberate travel planning is critical.

The BLM’s new travel planning process presents an opportunity to shape the public’s experience of Utah’s public lands. The BLM should take advantage of this opportunity to protect our shared heritage and craft visionary plans that will endure for years to come. Utah’s wild places deserve no less.

ATV in Tenmile Canyon. Copyright Liz Thomas/SUWA.

Off-road vehicles can do enormous damage to sensitive desert riparian areas. Copyright Liz Thomas/SUWA.

SUWA is committed to ensuring that the wild country proposed for wilderness designation under America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act—and the streams, wildlife, soils, native plants, archaeological sites, and solitude found there—are protected from ORV-related impacts. Toward that end, we are:

  • Participating in the BLM’s ongoing ORV travel planning for the 13 travel management areas delineated in the settlement agreement as well as travel planning for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Through that process, SUWA is providing significant information about the condition of routes on the ground and potential impacts to natural and cultural resources. The BLM must designate motorized vehicle routes in a way that minimizes conflicts with other users and protects the magnificent resources of Utah’s wild redrock country;
  • Continuing to provide the BLM and the public with information regarding the environmental impacts of ORV use and urging the agency to develop trail designations that make sense and minimize impacts to natural and cultural resources; and
  • Assisting in the clean-up and restoration of ORV-damaged areas through service trips with our members and other partners in the conservation community.

The San Rafael Desert Travel Plan

In August 2020, the BLM released the final travel management plan for the San Rafael Desert in eastern Emery County. It is the first of the 13 travel plans to be completed under the settlement agreement.

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. Click here to view a story map of the Bureau’s proposed San Rafael Desert travel plan.

Rather than a forward-thinking blueprint, the BLM’s travel plan inundates this remote area with ORV routes, more than doubling the miles open to motorized vehicles from 300 miles to more than 765 miles, including routes that are reclaimed, reclaiming or non-existent on the ground. Left unchecked, this plan will forever change the area’s stunning and remote wild lands.

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