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Court Strikes Down Controversial Federal Land Use Plan

BLM plan designated thousands of miles of ORV routes, placing iconic western landscapes at risk
November 4, 2013
Salt Lake City, UT — 

Today the United States District Court for the District of Utah struck down significant parts of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Resource Management Plan for the Richfield Office, putting the brakes on a Bush-era management scheme that prioritized motorized recreation over all else.  A coalition of conservation groups led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and Earthjustice had challenged the plan (the “Richfield RMP”) in an attempt to bring balanced management to Utah’s spectacular public lands. The plan developed by BLM threatened world-renown southern Utah wilderness landscapes like the Dirty Devil Canyon complex (including Butch Cassidy’s infamous hideout, Robber’s Roost), the Henry Mountains (the last mountain range to be mapped in the lower 48 states) and Factory Butte. See more photos.

Specifically, Judge Kimball:

  • Reversed BLM’s off-road vehicle (ORV) trail designations because BLM failed to minimize the destructive impacts of ORV use on streams, native plants, wildlife soils and irreplaceable cultural sites and artifacts, as required by law.
  • Directed BLM to complete intensive, on-the-ground surveys for historic and cultural resources before authorizing ORV use.
  • Held that BLM’s failure to designate the Henry Mountains as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern—which would have given heightened protection to its bison herds and large expanses of remote, spectacularly scenic lands—violated federal law.
  • Ordered BLM to reevaluate information supporting the designation of Happy Canyon and the spring areas of Buck and Pasture Canyons for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Under the Richfield RMP, BLM had designated over 4,200 miles of dirt roads and trails, enough miles to drive from Atlanta to Anchorage, for ORV vehicle use despite evidence of environmental damage and conflicts with other public lands visitors.

“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 RMP 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.”

The impact of this decision raises serious questions about the legality of five other BLM management plans in the eastern half of the state of Utah that suffer from similar legal flaws. The Richfield RMP is just one of six land use plans—covering more than 11 million acres of eastern and southern Utah—that the Interior Department finalized in October 2008. Together, these RMPs were a last-ditch attempt by the Bush administration to leave their stamp on Utah’s landscape by prioritizing ORVs and energy development over protecting Utah’s uniquely magnificent red rock canyon country. Conservationists have challenged all six plans in court. The Richfield RMP is the first of the six to be litigated.

“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.”

“This decision sends an irrefutable message to the BLM about the need for responsible management of the 11 million acres of public lands covered by all 6 challenged plans,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel for The Wilderness Society. “The BLM should heed this as a call to action and move forward now to address these flaws in all of the plans—minimizing damage from off-road vehicles and protecting natural and cultural values.”

"We're thrilled by the district court's decision," said Bill Hedden, Executive Director of the Grand Canyon Trust. "BLM's refusal to conduct on-the-ground inventories for cultural resources that are being damaged and destroyed from off-road vehicle use was shocking. Federal law requires BLM to do more to protect these irreplaceable cultural treasures and we're pleased that the judge ordered BLM to do so."

Background information on the Richfield RMP can be found on SUWA’s website.  Photographs of the proposed wilderness areas at risk in the Richfield field office are also available. In 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune and New York Times panned the Richfield RMP, raising many of the same flaws identified in the court’s decision.

The conservation groups challenging the BLM’s 2008 land use plans in Utah include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Utah Rivers Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, National Trust for Historic Preservation and Rocky Mountain Wild.

The groups are represented by attorneys Heidi McIntosh, Robin Cooley and Alison Flint of Earthjustice, Stephen Bloch and David Garbett of SUWA and by Robert Wiygul of Waltzer, Wiygul and Garside.


Contact:
Heidi McIntosh, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9621
Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 428-3981