It’s a great day for Utah’s redrock wilderness! Today the federal district court in Utah struck down significant parts of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) land use plan for the Richfield Field Office – a plan that prioritized off-road vehicle use above all else. This victory for wilderness represents years and years of hard work by staff, members and supporters of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).
This ruling sends a clear message to the State of Utah and its counties that the Bush-era land use plans they supported will not be the final word on the protection of Utah’s remarkable redrock wilderness.
Here are the details: in 2008 the BLM released a land use plan for the Richfield Field Office (the “Richfield Plan”). This plan designated 4,277 miles of dirt trails, tracks, and ghost-routes for off-road vehicle travel, relegating wilderness-quality lands to the scrap heap. The Richfield Plan ignored wilderness, cultural resources, wildlife, vegetation, and other special values.
Considering the world-class features found in this area, this was a major travesty. The Richfield Plan encompasses places like Factory Butte, the Henry Mountains, and the Dirty Devil. Check out a few photos here.
A coalition of conservation groups, led by SUWA, challenged the Richfield Plan in court, seeking to bring back balance to the BLM’s management of this area.
Today, we learned that our challenge was successful. Specifically, Judge Kimball:
- Reversed BLM’s off-road vehicle (ORV) trail designations because BLM failed to minimize the destructive impacts of ORV use on streams, native plants, wildlife, soils and irreplaceable cultural sites and artifacts, as required by law.
- Directed BLM to complete intensive, on-the-ground surveys for historic and cultural resources before authorizing ORV use.
- Held that BLM’s failure to designate the Henry Mountains as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern—which would have given heightened protection this special place— violated federal law.
- Ordered BLM to reevaluate information supporting the designation of Happy Canyon and the spring areas of Buck and Pasture Canyons for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
This ruling is a remarkable outcome that means the BLM will have to make significant changes to its management of public lands in the Richfield Field Office.
But this decision has further-reaching implications. The Richfield Plan is just one of six Bush-era land use plans that were released as that administration was headed out the door. Like the Richfield Plan, the other five are all efforts to memorialize a management regime that ignores wilderness protection in favor of ORVs and oil and gas drilling. SUWA’s litigation challenges all six plans; this Richfield Plan was simply the first to be litigated.
Those other five plans all suffer from the same flaws overturned by the federal court today. The BLM should expect a similar outcome.
Further, background information on the Richfield RMP can be found on SUWA’s website. Photographs of the proposed wilderness areas at risk in the Richfield field office are also available. In 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune and New York Times panned the Richfield RMP, raising many of the same flaws identified in the court’s decision.
SUWA and its conservation partners are represented in this litigation by Stephen Bloch and David Garbett from SUWA; Heidi McIntosh, Robin Cooley, and Alison Flint of Earthjustice; and by Robert Wiygul of Waltzer, Wiygul and Garside. We offer our sincere gratitude to our friends at Earthjustice and Robert for their work in this matter. Big thanks also to the following friends and colleagues who toiled on these plans for years; today’s success would not be possible without them: Liz Thomas and Ray Bloxham (SUWA), Scott Braden, Tim Wagner, and Herb McHarg (former SUWA staff), Nada Culver (TWS), and Jerry Spangler (Colorado Plateau Archeaological Alliance).