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 Dec. 30th, the court denied a request by the BLM to delay indefinitely surveys for cultural artifacts on lands managed by the agency’s Richfield field office, a course of action the BLM admitted would have resulted in damage to—or outright destruction of—an untold number of irreplaceable cultural sites.  The BLM is under a U.S. district court judge’s order to complete these surveys over the next three years.

The Richfield office oversees 2.1 million acres of redrock country in south-central Utah, largely sandwiched between Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks.  Several Native American groups, including the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, the Navajo Nation, and the Hopi Tribe, hold this land sacred.

Robbers Roost area rock art panel (SteveManning)
The BLM’s Richfield management area includes thousands of significant cultural sites like this rock art panel in the Dirty Devil region. Copyright Steve Manning

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 vehicular use would not harm these irreplaceable cultural resources.  It is these trails and tracks that the BLM must now survey.

The Tenth Circuit’s order is just the latest in a string of rulings we have obtained which consistently reject how the BLM manages ORVs in the Richfield area.  Briefing is ongoing before the circuit court over the BLM’s (and several intervenors’) challenges to prior federal district court rulings which held that the Richfield plan violated provisions of federal environmental and historic preservation laws.

It is 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 it’s been that way for the past seven years.

SUWA and our partners have challenged in federal court all six land use plans issued at the end of the Bush administration.  The Richfield plan is the first to be fully litigated.

—Steve Bloch

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Spring 2016 issue)