Skip to main content

Court Rejects Controversial Request to Delay Cultural Resource Surveys in Utah's Red Rock Country

Victory: First of six legal challenges to federal land use plans that put priceless cultural artifacts and some of the most spectacular landscapes in America at risk
Factory Butte in Utah is among the 2.1 million acres of public lands managed by the BLM Richfield Field Office.

Factory Butte in Utah is among the 2.1 million acres of public lands managed by the BLM Richfield Field Office.

John Buie / CC BY 2.0
December 30, 2015
Salt Lake City, UT —

Last week the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver, CO rejected a request by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to indefinitely delay surveys for cultural artifacts on public lands managed by BLM's Richfield Field Office in Utah.

In May of 2015, environmentalists and historic preservation advocates secured a victory when a Utah federal district court judge ordered BLM to conduct on-the-ground surveys to identify cultural artifacts in need of protection on more than 4,000 miles of dirt roads and trails where BLM has permitted off-road vehicles to be driven. The Tenth Circuit confirmed that BLM must comply.

“This region is home to an abundance of archaeological resources, including caves, rock shelters and rock art, that provide a window in to the lives of the early inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau,” said Kevin Jones, former Utah State archaeologist. “Off-road vehicles pose a serious threat to these irreplaceable resources.”

The Richfield Field Office covers 2.1 million acres of red rock country in south-central Utah, largely sandwiched between Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park. This land is held sacred by Native American tribes, including the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. Thousands of significant cultural properties have been identified in the field office including structures, ceramics, petroglyphs and lithic scatters. In a land use plan adopted in late 2008, BLM gave the green light to off-road vehicles to drive on more than 4,000 miles of trails and tracks without first surveying them to ensure that these irreplaceable cultural resources would not be harmed by such use.

“This is an important decision from the Tenth Circuit,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “In practical terms the ruling means that BLM can no longer delay following federal historic preservation laws which require the agency to ‘look before it leaps,’ and determine what irreplaceable cultural resources in the Richfield field office are at risk from off-road vehicle use. Rather than some new requirement, this is work that BLM was required by law to have undertaken 15 years ago when it first began the Richfield plan.”

Less than five percent of the public lands managed by the Richfield Field Office have been surveyed for cultural resources. BLM is required to survey the routes designated for off-highway vehicle use within three years.

“For decades, BLM has allowed off-road vehicles to carve up the landscape without first ensuring that the remnants of region’s rich history are preserved,” said Robin Cooley, Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups. “The court’s order means that BLM will finally have to take the steps required by law to identify and protect cultural artifacts.” 

BLM’s request to delay the cultural resource surveys was also opposed by the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Indian Peaks Band of Paiute, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Morning Star Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting native traditions, culture and art.

The Richfield land use plan is one of six plans—covering more than 11 million acres—adopted at the end of the George W. Bush administration. These plans were widely criticized for prioritizing motorized use and energy development over protection of Utah’s spectacular red rock canyon country. The conservation and historic preservation groups have challenged all six plans in court. The Richfield plan is the first to be litigated, but the plans all suffer from similar legal flaws.   

Background information on the Richfield land use plan can be found on Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's website. Photographs of the landscapes at risk are also available

The conservation groups challenging the plans 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 at SUWA, Earthjustice and Robert Wiygul of Waltzer, Wiygul and Garside.

Read the court's decision.