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Bears Ears designation upends proposed ATV trail in San Juan County

FILE"” A proposal to put in a 6.4 mile all-terrain vehicle loop in the Indian Creek region at the Bears Ears Monument was derailed by the new designation after environmental groups won a stay delaying any of the work to begin this spring.
FILE"” A proposal to put in a 6.4 mile all-terrain vehicle loop in the Indian Creek region at the Bears Ears Monument was derailed by the new designation after environmental groups won a stay delaying any of the work to begin this spring.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The new Bears Ears National Monument is already impacting land use in the region after a judge said an 12-year-old proposal to build an off-road trail is contrary to the presidential proclamation.

A judge with the Interior Board of Land Appeals ruled this week that no work can begin on the 6.4 mile ATV loop the Bureau of Land Management approved for the Indian Creek area until an appeal brought by environmental groups is settled.

The loop, sought by San Juan County since 2005, was approved by the BLM in December, just a little under two weeks before then-President Barack Obama made the 1.35 million-acre monument designation in southeast Utah.

Judge Silvia M. Riechel noted the proclamation states that any additional roads or trails designated for motorized use are restricted to those necessary for public safety or protection of objects covered by the proclamation.

Even though the BLM approved the trail prior to the monument designation, Riechel said the agency's decision was not yet in effect because of an automatic 30-day appeal period.

"This is an exciting victory for wilderness, and is the first time an administrative body or court has addressed the legal effect of the Bears Ears National Monument proclamation, which calls for careful consideration and analysis when managing the spectacular and irreplaceable resources within its boundaries," wrote Kya Marienfeld in a blog posted by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The alliance, the Grand Canyon Trust, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club fought approval of the trail due to its impacts on wilderness quality lands and effects from dust and soil degradation in a region they assert already has 3,000 miles of off-road trails.

Originally, San Juan County applied for a right-of-way with the BLM in 2005 to put in its own trail that would connect to ATV use on existing designated routes in the Lockhart Basin and Davis canyon areas.

After a trio of environmental assessments and accompanying public comment periods, the BLM in 2015 rejected the county proposal to put in the trail and instead issued a decision that it would construct the route and associated parking areas.

Later that year, based on appeal, the Interior Board of Land Appeals asked the BLM to conduct additional visual analysis of the proposed trail's impacts. The federal agency provided additional assessment and documentation of effects on cultural resources, riparian mitigation and an expanded noise analysis.

That resulted in the subsequent decision issued in December of last year, which brought another appeal.

Both the state of Utah and San Juan County are fighting the appeal, and the BLM joined Utah in objecting to the stay, with the agency arguing harm to the ATV community and to its credibility with the public because of a process that has played out for 12 years.

Tony Rampton, head of the public lands section for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said the stay demonstrates the uncertainty that swirls around land use on the monument.

"Nobody knows at this point what kind of restrictions are actually going to be employed on the monument. It's all up in the air," Rampton said.

He added that the delay, too, marks another setback in what has been a long, drawn out battle.

"The plaintiffs in the case, the environmental groups, just don't want ATVs anywhere. They certainly don't want ATVs in any area that has wilderness characteristics. That is what their primary objective is, to keep ATVs out of the public lands to the greatest degree possible. They are very dogged and determined, and they are having some success," Rampton said.

The environmental groups successfully argued that granting a delay in the construction of the trail prevents unnecessary environmental degradation to lands that would remain damaged long after the appeal is resolved.

The decision concluded that public interest was best served by preventing environmental degradation and preserving the status quo.

The BLM had argued that the 65-inch wide trail did serve a public safety purpose by routing ATVs off an existing trail frequently traveled by full-sized vehicles.