Thousands of miles of dusty two-tracks crisscross Utah’s remote public lands. Some are historical routes, while others were carved more recently by backcountry recreationists in trucks and four-wheelers. Which roads should still be used and which should be abandoned to protect the environment has been a topic of intense debate for years. Now, Utah is one step closer to ending its roads controversy.
Last week an eight-year lawsuit spanning 11 million acres and 20,000 miles of routes in southern and eastern Utah ended with a settlement. Ten environmental groups argued that Bureau of Land Management plans created in 2008 for Utah public lands were too heavily weighted to favor off-highway vehicle interests. U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Kimball in Salt Lake City agreed, in part.
Now, the BLM must review 13 travel management and five land use plans by 2025. Court orders requiring the BLM to re-do management plans are not uncommon, but the scale of the recent settlement is rare in the sheer acreage involved. The land affected stretches from Daggett County in the north down to the Arizona border, and from the Colorado border in the east to the town of Richfield in the center of the state. The area includes the San Rafael Swell, Nine Mile Canyon, Paunsaugunt Plateau, the Dolores River, Gemini Bridges and the Book Cliffs. “The agency certainly erred on the side of providing motorized access above many other concerns,” Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the BLM Action Center at the Wilderness Society, a plaintiff in the case, says. “In the legal standards, (the BLM must) minimize harm to wilderness, wildlife, to riparian areas, water quality. If you apply those standards, I think it’s fair to say you don’t get to 20,000 miles.”
The BLM will survey only about half of those routes, though. The settlement orders the agency to focus only on the most sensitive habitat and cultural areas to determine two things: first, whether the designated roads actually exist (some were created over a century ago and have long since disappeared), and second, whether existing roads should be closed to motorized recreation. Roads that appear on BLM maps but have physically vanished can create damage nonetheless, from people crisscrossing landscapes in a futile search. Along with the surveys, the agency will include other federal, tribal, state and local agencies in developing new management plans, and conduct a public review process before creating new maps showing only approved routes. The agency will take into account wilderness characteristics of the land, archaeological sites, and backcountry recreational opportunities.
Officials from the counties that intervened in the case — Kane, Carbon, Duchesne, Daggett, Grand, Emery, San Juan and Uintah — as well as the state of Utah, oppose the settlement. The compromise is “unfair and unreasonable, ” the state argued in court documents, and infringes on recreational opportunities and residents’ livelihoods. Some county commissioners are concerned about the settlement’s potential implications for other litigation involving old roads traversing public land. Utah counties and the state are attempting to claim tens of thousands of miles of historical routes using a 151-year-old law, RS2477.
While most of the settlement concerns roads, it also requires the agency to update its 2011 air resource management plan for Utah to make sure oil and gas impacts are sufficiently studied before approving future development projects in the Uintah Basin. The agency will have to update the plan within a year.
BLM district offices in Moab, Price, Vernal and Kanab are all part of the settlement. The Monticello field office was excluded from the settlement because of the Bears Ears National Monument designation late last year. “It was going to be complicated to try to apply a settlement that was negotiated for lands outside a national monument to a field office with a national monument,” Culver says. Richfield was also part of the lawsuit, but was dealt with in an earlier “test” case for the larger suit. The Richfield case concluded in 2013 in favor of the environmental groups.
While this settlement is a victory for proponents, the next step won’t be easy: eight years of planning for millions of acres. Culver is optimistic, though: “We’re glad that we get to move forward and improve the BLM plans — they really need it.”