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.

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.

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.

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 issued travel plans that limited ORV use to designated routes—Moab, Monticello, Richfield, Price, Vernal and Kanab. Although a step in the right direction, the BLM’s ORV route designations failed to comply with federal laws enacted to protect archaeological resources and failed to comply 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 BLM’s failure to comply with federal laws to protect public lands and resources from damages 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.

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, as well as 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 the agency is complying with its regulatory mandates.

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 within 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 Plans for public lands managed by the BLM’s St. George and Cedar City offices to ensure the BLM complies with its legal responsibility to designate specific ORV trails, and to do so in a way that minimizes conflicts with other users and protects the magnificent resource of Utah’s wild redrock country;
  • Continuing to provide the BLM and the public with information regarding the environmental impacts of ORV use and urge the agency to develop trail designations that make sense; 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.

Take Action

  • Urge the BLM to protect Recapture Canyon's cultural resources by keeping the canyon closed to off-road vehicles.

    Take Action »