In November, a federal judge in Utah struck down significant parts of the BLM’s land use plan for the Richfield field office—a plan that prioritized off-road vehicle (ORV) use above all else. This victory for wilderness represents years of hard work by SUWA staff, members and supporters.
Here are the details. In 2008 the BLM released a land use and ORV plan for the lands under the purview of the Richfield field office (in BLM parlance as we use it here, “office” is an administrative district). The area includes well-known redrock landscapes such as Factory Butte, the Henry Mountains and the Dirty Devil. This plan designated 4,277 miles of dirt trails, tracks, and ghost-routes for ORV travel and relegated wilderness-quality lands to the scrap heap. The Richfield plan also gave short shrift to cultural resources, wildlife, and other special values.
SUWA led a coalition of conservation groups in challenging the Richfield plan in court, seeking to bring balance to the BLM’s management of this area. Senior Federal District Court Judge Dale Kimball’s November ruling rejected several aspects of the Richfield plan. Specifically, Judge Kimball:
• Reversed the BLM’s ORV route designations because the agency failed to minimize the destructive impacts of ORV use on streams, native plants, wildlife, and irreplaceable cultural sites and artifacts, among other things, as required by law;
• Directed the BLM to complete detailed, on-the-ground surveys for historic and cultural resources before authorizing ORV use on designated routes;
• Held that the BLM’s failure to designate the Henry Mountains as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern—which would have given heightened protection to this special place— violated federal law; and,
• Ordered the BLM to re-evaluate 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.
Ramifications Beyond Richfield
This ruling is remarkable. It should mean the BLM will make significant changes to its management of the public lands that fall within the Richfield office’s jurisdiction.
And this decision should have implications far beyond this single BLM planning area. The Richfield plan is just one of six Bush-era land use plans that were released as that administration ran out the door. Like this one, the other five were all heavily weighted in favor of ORVs and energy development to the detriment of protecting wilderness landscapes.
The other five plans suffer from many of the same flaws identified by Judge Kimball. SUWA’s lawsuit challenges all six plans; the Richfield Plan was simply the first to come before the court. The BLM should expect a similar outcome for the other plans as the case moves forward.
SUWA and its conservation partners are represented in this litigation by Stephen Bloch and David Garbett of SUWA; Heidi McIntosh, Robin Cooley, and Alison Flint of Earthjustice; and Robert Wiygul of Waltzer, Wiygul and Garside. We offer our sincere gratitude to our friends at Earthjustice and to Robert Wiygul for their work in this matter. Big thanks also go 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), and Nada Culver (The Wilderness Society).
Most of all, we thank SUWA’s members and supporters for their confidence in us and for their generosity. You are SUWA. Without you we would not have the resources a legal case such as this requires.
[From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, spring 2014 issue]