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Environmental groups sue BLM over opening southern Utah area to off-road vehicles

Factory Butte, near Hanksville, is pictured in the 1990s.
Factory Butte, near Hanksville, is pictured in the 1990s.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Bureau of Land Management decision to reopen the Factory Butte area in southern Utah to off-road vehicles has drawn fire from three environmental groups.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Wilderness Society is suing the federal agency for lifting a 2006 travel restriction on 5,400 acres near Hanksville in Wayne County.

The groups argue that the BLM opened the door to OHV use without any environmental review on the impacts to sensitive shale soils, riparian areas, air quality, climate change or the endangered Wright fishhook cactus. They say it would lead to degradation of scenic resources and increased conflict between public land users.

The BLM closed the lands around Factory Butte to off-road vehicles in 2006 to protect threatened and endangered plant species.

The agency issued a press release on May 22 announcing that it was rescinding the restrictions after meeting criteria to develop a threatened and endangered species monitoring plan.

“We have been monitoring and installing infrastructure over the last 10 years to protect endangered cactus species so that the BLM can enhance recreational access at Factory Butte,” said Joelle McCarthy, BLM Richfield field manager. “Factory Butte provides nationally renowned opportunities for motorized recreation where families and OHV enthusiasts can play.”

The decision opened 5,300 acres in Factory Butte and 100 acres in Cainville Cove.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported removing the restriction and says it would continue to work with the BLM to ensure recreation and conservation activities remain compatible and sustainable.

"We have worked closely with the BLM to conserve the rare and endangered plants found exclusively in south-central Utah," said Larry Crist, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Utah Ecological Services Field Office.

The environmental groups say the BLM lifted the travel closure order without any advance notice to the public just days before the busy Memorial Day weekend.

"BLM neither provided a contemporaneous rationale nor prepared a NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) analysis for this decision," according to the lawsuit. Instead, the agency "concocted" its rationale a few days later in brief memo that wasn't immediately available to the public, the lawsuit says.

The groups want a judge to find that the BLM violated the federal environmental law and set aside its decision to lift the Factory Butte closure order. It also wants the court to restore the restrictions until the agency has complied with the law.