Cox calls BLM decision to close Moab off-roading routes ‘blatant federal overreach’ as state files legal challenge
‘The BLM’s plan to close trails in this treasured region is completely unacceptable,’ Utah governor says
The state of Utah and a group of off-roading activists have each filed separate appeals challenging a recent Bureau of Land Management travel plan that would close more than 300 miles of dirt trails and roads to motorized use near Moab.
On Oct. 27, the state of Utah filed a notice of appeal to fight the Labyrinth Canyon and Gemini Bridges travel management plan, which was announced in late September, according to documents from the Utah Attorney General’s Office. The BlueRibbon Coalition and the Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders — two off-roading advocacy groups — followed suit on Monday with another appeal.
The plan closed 317 miles of trails and roads in the area, about 28% of the total 1,128 miles of routes in the Gemini Bridges and Labyrinth Canyon areas, a vast expanse along the Green River northwest of Moab.
The new travel plan was celebrated by environmental groups and the Grand County Commission, which had pushed for the most restrictive option. The decision “represents an important step forward to guide the management of Utah’s public lands and reduce the impacts of off-road vehicle routes in this area,” said Laura Peterson, a Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney, or SUWA, after the plan was released.
But on Tuesday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox accused the BLM of federal overreach.
“The BLM’s plan to close trails in this treasured region is completely unacceptable. These are historic routes that have been used by the public for generations, and we won’t tolerate this kind of blatant federal overreach,” Cox said in a statement.
Groups like the BlueRibbon Coalition, a motorized recreation advocacy organization, echoed Cox, telling the Deseret News the BLM didn’t listen to the users who opposed the plan. The BLM’s decision “limits or prohibits camping access to countless free, primitive dispersed campsites,” the coalition said.
And according to the state of Utah’s appeal, the BLM’s decision violates the R.S. 2477 statute, which grants counties and states a right-of-way across federal lands. Roughly 114 miles of rights-of-way were closed with the new travel plan, attorneys for Utah write, closing “access to two parcels of state trust lands.”
“Within the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area, members of the public utilize and enjoy these R.S. 2477 rights-of-way in motorized vehicles virtually every day of the year. The public has an interest in continued access to valid rights-of-way to which the BLM has restricted access,” reads a petition to stay the new travel plan.
Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney on Tuesday voiced his support for Utah’s appeal.
“Shutting down over 300 miles of off-road trails near Moab has extensive impact on the economy in the region. I support Utah’s efforts to appeal (the BLM’s) overreaching and nonsensical rule,” Romney wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
The other appeal, filed by the BlueRibbon Coalition claims the new travel plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects and seek public comment before starting projects.
“The trails closed by this decision are some of the most popular trails in the world,” said Ben Burr, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, in a statement. “Public lands belong to all Americans, and they should be managed to bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. I’ve spent weeks in this area exploring these trails and speaking to those recreating in this area, and these closures will cause irreparable harm to everyone who has participated for generations in the creation of a vibrant recreation culture in this area.”
The appeal also argues the travel plan violates the Dingell Act, a combination of public lands bills and designations. In the 34-page appeal, the groups argue the the Dingell Act’s “designation of certain wilderness areas, like Labyrinth Canyon, would not lead to restrictions seeping into the surrounding areas.”
And lastly, the appeal claims the decision violates the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. “Because BLM placed the exercise of final executive power in the hands of an unelected employee, and not an officer, the final actions taken by that employee are invalid and unconstitutional,” court documents read.
Both appeals were filed with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, along with a motion to stay the route closures while the appeal is pending. The board has 45 days to respond.
Senior attorney for the Center for the America Future at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Matt Miller called the travel plan “part of an ongoing effort to close the vast American West, where the federal government is the largest landowner.”
“BLM is trying to move use of these lands from the rights-based system that has endured for decades to a permission-based system that allows bureaucrats to close these lands to serve their policy preferences,” Miller said.
Peterson, with SUWA, said the group was “disappointed but not surprised” that the Labyrinth Canyon and Gemini Bridges plan is being challenged.
“Unfortunately, there are some who will not be satisfied unless every inch of Utah’s public lands are blanketed with off-road vehicle routes, regardless of the damage these vehicles cause,” Peterson said in a statement.
“The BLM’s plan takes a thoughtful approach to managing recreation in this popular area; one that will protect the stunning Labyrinth Canyon river corridor and critically important riparian ecosystem while leaving thousands of miles of dirt roads and trails open to motorized use in the greater Moab area. SUWA is confident the plan will withstand scrutiny and intends to intervene to defend BLM’s decision,” she said.
The BLM is in the process of revising 11 travel plans in Utah following a 2008 legal challenge from SUWA over resource management at the Moab, Vernal, Price, Kanab, Monticello and Richfield field offices.
SUWA argued that some of the plans didn’t look after the cultural resources in accordance with federal law. It won, and the revisions are starting to take shape, with the Gemini Bridges-Labyrinth Canyon travel plan the third of 11.
Of all 11 regions, it’s one of the more high profile and controversial.
A short drive from Moab, the area has seen a proliferation of motorized use in recent years, a trend impacting much of the popular southern Utah tourist destination. And Labyrinth Canyon is one of the few consistent stretches of flat water on the Green River, doable on canoes or stand-up paddleboards.