How much damage can 1,600 off-road vehicles wreak in southern Utah during a weekend of blasting along 28 desert trails? Not much, the Bureau of Land Management says.

A week ago, the Bureau of Land Management granted a five-year permit to allow the annual Jeep Safari, which uses routes in the Moab area. The safari has been held every year since 1966."After review of comments, we have analyzed the additional concerns and have concluded that with the addition of more protective stipulations, a well-managed Jeep Safari will not result in significant impacts," wrote Brad D. Palmer, manager of the BLM's Grand Resource Area, based in Moab.

Ken Rait, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said 11 of the 28 trails have major conflicts with land that would be protected under Rep. Wayne Owens' wilderness bill. Seven have minor conflicts; only 10 have no conflicts.

"The conflicts come about because the trails cross over and into areas that we think should be wilderness," he said. In addition, "I think there are serious impacts on the desert bighorn sheep."

A management plan issued by the BLM and state about desert bighorn sheep says off-road vehicle use should be restricted in lambing areas during lambing season.

"The Jeep Safari coincides with the lambing season for desert bighorn sheep. More than half of the trails run through Category I and Category II bighorn sheep areas . . . They use those same areas for lambing."

Mary Plumb, spokeswoman for the BLM's Moab District, said many of those opposed to reissuing the permit cited the 5.1-million-acre Owens wilderness bill.

"We have received guidance from the Secretary of the Interior that the Department of Interior does not recognize Wayne Owens' wilderness bill until it's passed by Congress," she said. "There's also a bill that's been introduced by Congressman Jim Hansen that recognized somewhere around 1.2 million acres."

According to Plumb, until some wilderness measure is passed, the BLM considers the conflicting bills as "politics; they're not law."

"We are meeting our legal mandate to protect wilderness values" on land identified as wilderness study areas by the BLM, she said.

"Many of the 28 trails date back to the 1950s and '60s. Most are described in various guidebooks . . . all are open to the general public, consistent with the resource management plan."

But is it consistent with good resource management to allow off-road vehicles to roar along desert trails in bighorn habitat?

Plum said wildlife scientists say the bighorns of that area will lamb after the Easter weekend and that this means the safari will have no effect on them. The BLM placed a stipulation in its permit that says trail guides, who are supposed to protect the environment, will be used for every 25 vehicles.

"Apparently they've got studies saying that bighorn sheep are not as sensitive to people being in the area as they are to being approached. There've been a lot of documented bighorn occurrences, with people passing them on highways and on river trips," she said.

Jim Karpowitz, regional game manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Price, said, "We normally see lambs in early April or mid-April, and then they'll lamb through the end of May. The standard dates we give agencies on seasonal stipulations is actually April 15 through May 31. But we do see a few lambs before that."

Normally bighorn lambs start showing up in early to mid-April, he said, "but there could be some lambing going on in early April."

If the Jeep Safari were to pass near bighorn sheep during lambing, he said, "that could cause some stress to the bighorns . . . We would be concerned. We would want to review the routes, see if the routes indeed are in the lambing areas."

True, next year Easter happens to fall before the lamb-ing really gets going. It will be on March 31, 1991.

But the permit is for five years, and the date of Easter varies, depending on the date of the new moon. For at least three of the five years, lambing certainly will be going on during Easter.

Federal agencies charged with the responsibility of protecting wildlife against needless abuse should take a firm stand in favor of conservation, regardless of how many people want to rip along the desert trails. If there's a question, the agency should err on the side of nature.

Those who really think it's fun to drive their noisy vehicles in the desert should stick to the paved highways and away from bighorn sheep. There's plenty to see along the road from Moab to Blanding, and they don't have to scare any scarce ungulates there.

The BLM is not credible if it says that hundreds of off-road vehicles can have no significant impact on bighorn sheep during lambing. The BLM should buy an almanac that lists the holidays for the next few years and reconsider its permit.