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Conservation groups praise ruling to keep off-road vehicles off land

SHARE Conservation groups praise ruling to keep off-road vehicles off land
This landmark decision is a resounding rejection of the [Bureau of Land Management]'s mismanagement of Utah’s stunning public lands. – Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of conservation groups is hailing a federal judge's ruling Monday that nixed portions of the Richfield Bureau of Land Management plan they said gave deference to off-road vehicles at the expense of the environment.

"This landmark decision is a resounding rejection of the BLM’s mismanagement of Utah’s stunning public lands,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“The Richfield (Resource Management Plan) wrongly prioritized ORV use over all other uses of the public lands and neglected streams and special places worthy of protection. The court didn’t mince words in its ruling that this violated federal environmental and historic laws,” Bloch said.

The ruling tosses a travel plan adopted by the federal agency that designated 4,277 miles of motorized routes and forces both the BLM and the environmental groups back to court to work out a remedy.

U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball ordered briefs by Dec. 6 on the possible resolution of the nixed travel plan and other aspects of the case, and set a Jan. 10 deadline for responses.

The ruling does not immediately change what off-road routes are accessible, but it does force the land management agency to undertake a thorough inventory of what cultural resources could be impacted by motorized travel.

"How this affects people out on the ground is a chapter that has yet to be written," said David Garbett, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

SUWA and six other groups filed a legal challenge to the Bush-era resource management plans in Utah following their adoption in 2008, contending they imperiled pristine landscapes because the plans favored access over protection.

The Richfield plan covers 2.1 million acres that is mostly sandwiched between Capitol Reef National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It was the first plan to get its day in court, where critics detailed that its 4,000 miles of off-road vehicle routes threatened prime landscapes such as Factory Butte, the Henry Mountains and Dirty Devil Canyon.

In his ruling, Kimball reversed the BLM's off-road vehicle designations and directed the BLM to complete on-the-ground surveys for historic and cultural resources before authorizing any off-road use.

Prior to the Richfield travel plan's adoption, 77 percent of the area was open to off-highway vehicle use without restriction. The plan closed 345 miles of trails and imposed restrictions on another 548 miles of routes, eliminating what was described as a "free-for-all" for motorized travel.

But the judge said the BLM wrongly relied on the fact that it closed some routes a sufficient threshold to minimize impacts from off-roading.

"However, the discussion of closing routes does not explain why they were closed or that the closures were to minimize impacts," the judge wrote.

Additionally, the judge said the agency's failure to designate the Henry Mountains as an "area of critical environmental concern" violated federal law because the decision was made without proper analysis of the area.

In a victory for the BLM, however, the ruling did not derail the Richfield Resource Management Plan because the agency failed to follow the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, as SUWA and the other groups claimed. The judge said the agency followed the law and complied with the "hard look" requirement of the potential impacts of off-highway vehicle use.

Even though the BLM process was upheld, Bloch said the ruling raises questions about the legality of five other BLM management plans in the eastern half of the state that the groups contend suffer from similar legal problems. Conservationists have challenged all six plans in court. The Richfield plan is the first of the six to be litigated.

In their challenge to the Richfield plan, the groups said the plan allowed off-highway vehicle use on 1.9 million of those acres in routes detailed only in spreadsheets. The routes included 400 stream crossings, yet they said the BLM did not detail any impacts to water quality.

Kimball also ordered the BLM to re-evaluate information supporting the designation of Happy Canyon and the spring areas of Buck and Pasture Canyons for protection.

“It’s a new day for Utah’s Red Rock country,” said Heidi McIntosh of Earthjustice. “This far-reaching decision means BLM can no longer dismiss the value of wilderness, scenery, wildlife and areas of cultural importance to Native Americans in favor of destructive ORV use.”

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