On January 11, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit issued an opinion in a case brought by SUWA and The Wilderness Society that challenged Kane County’s attempt to undermine federal land management of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In a fairly technical ruling, the court held that conservationists were simply not the right parties to bring the suit because the interests they sought to protect, in the court’s view, belonged to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Monument.
According to Heidi McIntosh, co-counsel on the case, “the court’s ruling does not in any way validate the County’s decision to take the law into its own hands by removing BLM’s ORV closure signs on federal lands, nor did it rule that any of the county’s R.S. 2477 road claims were valid. In fact, the routes at the core of the issue are primitive and remote, with little if any use. They do not go to schools, grocery stores or other public destinations, as some have argued. And in the end, not much has changed for the county as a result of this ruling.”
The conflict arose in 2003 when the County objected to a federal land use plan issued by the BLM which closed a number of routes to vehicle use in order to protect various natural resources. Such vehicle use contributes to erosion, introduces non-native weeds, disrupts wildlife and has been linked to the looting of archaeological sites. The County then took the law into its own hands and removed the BLM signs and replaced them with signs inviting ORVs and other vehicles to use the routes. The County also enacted an ordinance which invited ORV use throughout the county, including on the closed routes in the Monument.
We filed the suit in 2005 after the BLM failed to take action to protect the Monument from the County’s extra-legal activities. Both the U.S. District Court in Utah and a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit ruled in our favor. The County then requested a hearing by the full 11-judge appellate court, which issued the decision yesterday.
McIntosh noted that, “conservationists have been doing the BLM’s job by holding off the county and its aggressive actions for over five years. The county’s signs are down, the ordinance has been repealed. Now BLM has to step up to the plate and do its job to make sure the Monument and its remarkable resources are fully protected.”
The Wilderness Society joined SUWA in the suit, and Earthjustice attorneys Jim Angell, Ted Zukoski and McChristie Adams were co-counsel on the case with SUWA attorneys Heidi McIntosh and Steve Bloch. Jim Angell brought outstanding advocacy skills to his oral argument before the case at the Tenth Circuit, and we thank him, Ted and The Wilderness Society for their outstanding efforts in this case.