• May 1st, 2019

    For Immediate Release

    Decision Made Under Cover of Darkness to Push Through Garfield County’s Long-Held Desire to Pave Remote Desert Dirt Road

    Contact: Stephen Bloch, Legal Director, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-428-3981 steve@suwa.org

    Phil Hanceford, Conservation Director, The Wilderness Society, 303-225-4636, phil_hanceford@tws.org

    Matt Abele, Communications Manager, National Parks Conservation Association, 510-851-3532, mabele@npca.org 

    Salt Lake City, UT (May 1, 2019) – The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the Wilderness Society, and National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) today filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Utah challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision to approve Garfield County, Utah’s request to chip-seal a seven and a half mile stretch of the remote Burr Trail near Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.

    The BLM’s decision was made on Friday afternoon, April 26, 2019. The BLM notified Garfield County that afternoon, and work began almost immediately; by 9 am Tuesday morning, April 30, more than 2/3rds of the project was completed; Garfield County had staged equipment and gravel near the area in advance of the BLM’s decision to expedite completion of the project. The BLM did not publicly announce their Friday decision until 2 pm, Monday, April 29, 2019. BLM’s deliberate effort to hide its decision from public scrutiny while giving the County the green light to begin paving was unethical.

    Reports indicate that the decision to approve the rushed Environmental Assessment (EA), which had a mere 15-day comment period, was made at the highest levels in Washington, DC. The final decision consists of a 10 page document that is nearly identical to the initial EA, suggesting that public comments were not considered. The BLM found that Garfield County’s request to chip-seal the road was “necessary,” even though the County has no adjudicated legal right of way on the Burr Trail road, and would have “no adverse impact” on surrounding wild lands, contrary to repeated concerns  raised by the National Park Service on earlier proposals to chip seal the same section of road.

    A portion of the Burr Trail is chip-sealed by road crews in Garfield County, Utah, east of Capitol Reef National Park, on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Photo (c) Ray Bloxham/Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Re-use with attribution permitted.

    Garfield County has sought to pave the Burr Trail for nearly 35 years. Under the Trump administration, their request was approved in less than 30 days, despite repeated denials of the request from previous Democratic and Republican administrations.

    “The chip-sealing of the Burr Trail near Capitol Reef National Park by Garfield County is proof that the state of Utah’s 20+ RS 2477 lawsuits, seeking title to rights of way over tens of thousands of miles of routes across federal public land in Utah, is driven by the desire to open up Utah wild lands to development,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director of the Southern Utah Alliance. “They literally want to pave it all.  Garfield County has now paved a stretch of dirt road in the middle of the desert. There is no better illustration of the state’s and counties’ true intentions behind their lawsuits seeking title to rights-of-way for remote routes traversing public lands in Utah. The fact that this decision was made from the very top by Trump officials in Washington, DC, is further proof that President Trump’s assault on Utah’s magnificent red rock wilderness persists.”

    A portion of the Burr Trail is chip-sealed by road crews in Garfield County, Utah, east of Capitol Reef National Park, on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Photo (c) Ray Bloxham/Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Re-use with attribution permitted.

    “The decision was rushed through to allow work to commence before the ink was dry and with no apparent consideration of public comments,” said Phil Hanceford, Conservation Director at The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “This is a disturbing way to conduct business on public lands that are owned by all Americans, especially when the BLM knew of the longstanding and contentious nature of this proposed action.”

    “Mile by mile, Garfield County has chip-sealed the Burr Trail up to the boundaries of Capitol Reef National Park with clear intent to continue right through the park boundary, up the iconic Burr Trail Switchbacks, to the other side,” said Cory MacNulty, Associate Director, Southwest Region of National Parks Conservation Association. “Maintaining unpaved access to the Waterpocket District is critical for the National Park Service to uphold its commitment to manage this area for its wilderness solitude and natural quiet, sense of backcountry adventure and discovery. With more than 15 million visitors drawn to Utah national parks each year, paving these areas will surely lead to significant increases in traffic, taking away from what makes these wild lands so special.”

    “Bisecting the wild and remote lands abutting Capitol Reef National Park and the Mt. Pennell Wilderness Study Area, the Burr Trail Road is dwarfed by towering 800-foot sandstone walls and the dramatic Waterpocket Fold. Its remote location makes it a critical refuge for unique flora and fauna, a home to rare geological features, and an oasis for the adventurous of heart. We know that paving these pristine wild lands is patently illegal and directly threatens the future of this unique and treasured place,” said Ashley Soltysiak, Director of the Utah Sierra Club, in a statement condemning the agency’s decision.

    Additional Resources:

    BLM documents from eplanning.blm.gov.

  • April 22nd, 2019

    For Immediate Release
    April 22, 2019

    Contact:
    Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3991, landon@suwa.org
    Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.859.1552, steve@suwa.org

    Salt Lake City, UT (April 22, 2019) The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) has filed a federal lawsuit challenging two decisions by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to offer, sell, and issue thirty-five oil and gas leases totaling 54,508 acres of public lands for development on the doorstep of Bears Ears, Hovenweep, and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments.

    The lawsuit, filed on Friday, April 19, 2019, aims to protect some of the most culturally and archaeologically rich public lands in the United States. These lands include cliff dwellings, pueblos, kivas, petroglyph and pictograph panels, and Chaco-era (circa 900-1150 A.D.) great houses. Numerous Native American tribes consider these sites sacred. The lawsuit challenges Utah-BLM’s March 2018 and December 2018 Monticello field office leasing decisions (March 2018 sale information here; December 2018 sale information here).

    “The Trump administration is following a well-worn path of ‘leasing first, and thinking later,’ the same approach taken by the George W. Bush administration’s ‘drill here, drill now’ policies,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.  “This approach, which has riddled Utah’s wild and culturally significant public lands with leases and should come as no surprise given that it’s the same political appointee – David Bernhardt – steering the Interior Department.”

    The BLM, in its rush for “energy dominance,” ignored concerns raised by the National Park Service (NPS), Native American tribes, and the public, including SUWA. For the March 2018 sale, the NPS (BLM’s sister-agency in the Department of the Interior tasked with the management of nearby national monuments) submitted written comments condemning the BLM’s leasing proposal as being uninformed and ill-advised (see here). NPS explained that the BLM had “not fully evaluated” and had “not acted” to address its concerns regarding impacts of oil and gas development to national monuments including impacts to national monuments, dark night skies, air quality, water quality, and cultural resources, among others.

    The All Pueblo Council of Governors and Pueblo of Acoma both submitted formal protests of BLM’s December 2018 leasing proposal (see, here, here). They explained that the BLM had failed to consider and analyze impacts to historic and traditional cultural properties and national monuments, among other resources. The Hopi Tribe similarly requested that BLM not offer these leases for oil and gas development (See, e.g., here).

    “The BLM has placed the final pieces, completing its puzzle of oil and gas leases located at the doorstep of Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “And the BLM has done so without considering the ‘big picture’ impacts to national monuments and climate change and the surrounding landscapes, including impacts to dark night skies and the region’s rich cultural heritage.”

    The Obama administration had declined to issue new oil and gas leases in this same area, citing the need to collect and analyze additional information and data regarding cultural resources, potential impacts to national monuments, and greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The BLM never collected or analyzed that information and data. However, without having collected or analyzed the information and data the agency previously determined to be necessary, the Trump administration has resumed leasing in this contested area and proceeded to build a mosaic of leases on the doorstep of these national monuments (see here).

    At the same time it has rushed to open up more lands for development, the Utah-BLM has also dutifully implemented the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda. Among other things, the BLM has taken steps to (1) eliminate opportunities for public engagement in the agency’s leasing decisions, (2) eliminate the agency’s obligation to fully analyze site-specific impacts of leasing and development, and (3) eliminate any additional BLM-identified “burden” on oil and gas leasing and development.

    SUWA’s lawsuit challenges the BLM’s failure to fully analyze the potential impacts of its leasing decisions, including to cultural resources, national monuments, climate change, and lands with wilderness characteristics. SUWA requests that the court set-aside and vacate the BLM’s leasing decisions and prohibit the BLM from approving future oil and gas development on the leases. Photographs of cultural and archaeological sites located on oil and gas leases at issue in this lawsuit are available here.

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  • April 10th, 2019

    February 2019 scientific review counters claims made by agencies on environmental benefits of vegetation removal on public lands

    Contact: Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney, 435-259-5440, kya@suwa.org

    Moab, UT (April 10, 2019) – Citing a new report on the lack of scientific evidence supporting “vegetation treatment” projects on public lands, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and its members are calling on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to halt work on three massive “vegetation treatment” proposals within the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    The peer-reviewed report*, released in February, 2019 by the Wild Utah Project – a Utah-based non-profit organization focused on conservation science  – analyzes the existing scientific literature on mechanical vegetation removal projects on western public lands. The report finds little evidence to support the BLM’s assertion that vegetation treatment projects improve forage or habitat for wildlife, or reduce stream erosion and runoff.

    In response to the report and ongoing plans by the BLM to conduct mechanical vegetation treatment projects on nearly 135,000 acres of the original 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, SUWA Wildlands attorney Kya Marienfeld released the following statement:

    Large-scale vegetation removal projects are an extreme and unproven management approach that simply do not belong on our public lands, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument should never be the subject of the most aggressive and invasive treatments like chaining, mastication, and mulching. These projects are completely incompatible with protecting the fragile ecological, paleontological, and archaeological resources in Grand Staircase.”

    The BLM’s current mechanical vegetation treatment plans in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument include:

    • Proposing to use chainsaws and mechanical masticators on up to 93,000 acres of public lands within a 610,000 acre area of the Paria River watershed.
    • Authorizing the removal of pinyon pine and juniper trees from more than 30,000 acres of within Skutumpah Terrace area northeast of Kanab. SUWA and conservation partners have appealed this project to the Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals.Additional resources on the web:Link to this press release.
    • In three additional proposals at the heart of Grand Staircase (including Alvey Wash, Last Chance Gulch, and Coal Bench), the BLM plans to use heavy machinery including bullhog masticators to strip more than 13,000 acres of native vegetation, including pinyon and juniper trees and big sagebrush.

    Additional resources on the web:

    Summary of the Wild Utah Project report.

    The Wild Utah Project website.

    *Jones, A.J. (Ed).  2019. Do mechanical vegetation treatments of pinyon-juniper and sagebrush communities work?  A review of the literature. Special publication, Wild Utah Project. Salt Lake City, UT. (Full report.)

  • March 28th, 2019

    Following public outcry and a formal protest from SUWA, this week the Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) deferred all of its proposed oil and gas leases in San Juan County from its March 2019 lease sale “due to additional environmental analysis required.”

    The proposed leases were on the doorstep of Bears Ears, Hovenweep, and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments.*

    Simply put, these leases would not have been deferred if not for SUWA’s tireless defense of every acre of BLM public land deserving of wilderness protection in Utah.

    Our defense of Utah’s redrock wilderness relies upon the support of our members. Please become a member of SUWA today.


    It’s the nature of environmental defense that this victory is short-lived—although deferred, the parcels will likely be back up for sale at the September 2019 lease sale.

    But SUWA will be there to fight those leases, too, and this decision by the BLM puts us in a strong position in our challenges to other BLM lease sales (from March and December 2018), because those lease sales relied on the same environmental analysis (surprise!). If it is insufficient now, then it was insufficient then.

    Not all of our work results in victories, of course, and most of our work never makes the news. But you can be assured that SUWA will never give up and never give an inch in our defense of the Redrock.

    Please become a member of SUWA today.

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