Litigation spanning three presidential administrations regarding off-highway vehicle travel in large swaths of eastern and southern Utah, including iconic red-rock country, may have reached its end following a ruling this week.
Conservation groups say the order by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Denver, clears the way for the Bureau of Land Management to begin implementing a lawsuit settlement agreement under which 13 new travel management plans will be completed over the next eight years. The agency will have to expressly consider things such as whether routes minimize impacts to resources such as wilderness values, said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The litigation targeted land use and travel management plans for the Moab, Vernal, Price, Richfield, Kanab and Monticello field offices. The deal will result in sites-specific travel plans in certain portions of the lands targeted by the lawsuit, the BLM said in January in a news release announcing the then-tentative agreement.
“Moab is probably the most iconic of those areas but there are a lot of other areas of comparable interest and quality,” said Paul Turcke, the attorney for off-highway vehicle groups that had intervened in the suit and joined in the settlement agreement.
Bloch said the settlement will allow for a “redo” of plans issued during the George W. Bush administration. Those plans designated thousands of miles of routes for off-road vehicle use “in very much a helter-skelter fashion,” he said.
The litigation was filed against the Bush administration in 2008, the settlement was announced in the waning days of the Obama administration, and it is going forward under the Trump administration.
“My impression is that (the Trump administration) reviewed it and concluded that this was the best path forward for the BLM,” Bloch said.
In a question-and-answer document the BLM released in January, it said the settlement resolves costly and time-consuming litigation, lets the agency focus on other priorities, preserves the 2008 land use plans adopted by the field offices, and commits the agency to travel management planning in less than half the area covered by the lawsuit. Conservation groups say the travel planning will encompass about 6 million acres.
The agreement doesn’t affect the recently created Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
The agreement included conservation groups, the BLM and the intervening off-highway vehicle groups. Several intervenors in the case, including the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration and oil and gas companies, didn’t oppose the settlement. Some Utah counties and the state did oppose it, but Utah U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Kimball ruled in April that it is “a fair and lawful resolution of years of litigation.”
The case went to appeals court after Kimball in 2013 found some faults with BLM decisions pertaining to the Richfield office, in what was designed as a test case for the larger suit. Bloch said the objecting counties have indicated they won’t challenge the dismissal of their appeal, but they’ve got 60 days to decide on that and the state also still can challenge the settlement.
Turcke said opponents of the settlement are “down to their proverbial last gasp” for challenging it, and courts tend to generally favor case settlements, barring some illegality, which he doesn’t believe exists in this agreement.
“Basically this has pretty well been approved at this point,” he said.
He said of the settlement, “We’re not turning cartwheels over this, but given the alternatives and given the fact that we could participate effectively and make positive changes to this agreement, we think it’s the best option for moving forward.”
One upside from the perspective of Turcke’s clients is that no routes are being closed under the settlement. While some could be closed after plans are revised, “basically all engaged interests will have their fair opportunity to come forward and present their positions,” he said.
“… Everyone gets a fair shake in the future process and they can challenge the outcome if they choose.”
Bloch said the settlement will provide a new opportunity for recreationists such as hunters, backpackers and motorists— including Coloradans who enjoy visiting Utah public lands — to weigh in on the travel plans.
Bloch said the Moab area and the Bookcliffs north of Interstate 70 were two places where the BLM made “some of the most egregious missteps” in its 2008 plans. He said some other notable areas that will undergo new planning include the Labyrinth Canyon stretch of the Green River outside Moab and the Dolores River area.
Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups, said in the groups’ news release that the settlement is good news for areas including lands surrounding Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Dinosaur National Monument.
“BLM must take a fresh look at where it will allow off-highway vehicles to drive, this time with an eye towards protecting the very things that make Utah’s redrock country so special — its wildness, opportunities for solitude, and irreplaceable archaeological sites,” Cooley said.
The settlement also requires things such as monitoring for illegal use, and reconsideration of whether to designate three places as areas of critical environmental concern due to concerns such as the existence of rare plants, conservationists says.
“These amazing lands deserve thoughtful management for uses other than motorized recreation and oil and gas development, which are prioritized in the current plans,” Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society said in the news release.
Under the agreement, the federal government will pay $400,000 to conservation groups for their legal fees. Bloch said that while the groups are pleased about that commitment, it covers just a fraction of their costs over the more than eight years of litigation.