BLM plans to open quiet Colorado lands to off-roading

Bangs Canyon, Colorado. 

Soren Jespersen. 

Bureau of Land Management fails to strike a balance between off-roading and quiet recreation

The red rock canyons, expansive mesas, and high-desert rivers near Grand Junction, Colorado are a recreation paradise. Hikers and backpackers find solitude among the canyons and hoodoos, and mountain bikers flock to the area for the world class trails that weave in and out of slot canyons. So when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its new Resource Management Plan for Grand Junction, it was quite a surprise—and disappointment—that motorized off-road vehicles are taking center stage on these public lands.

Public lands and recreation go hand-in-hand in the Grand Junction area. If you are feeling ambitious—you could rock climb in the Book Cliffs, float down the Dolores River, and hike through Kings Canyon, all in a single day. Unfortunately, under the BLM’s new plan, there is a large chance that these activities will be accompanied by the roar of a nearby ATV. This is because only 126,200 acres (roughly 12 percent of the lands) will be protected for quiet, backcountry recreation experiences by being closed to off-road vehicles.

Motor vehicles take priority over quiet recreation

The BLM is prioritizing motorized recreation at the expense of locals and tourists alike who visit western Colorado’s public lands to experience the sights and sounds of nature. Nearly 2,400 miles of roads will be opened to motorized use. Moreover, the BLM’s plan expects to design and develop new trails in much of the area—putting solitude at significant risk.

On the other end of the spectrum are lands with wilderness characteristics. These lands are the sought after sections of hiking trails and biking routes where visitors can escape and enjoy the outdoors in quiet solitude. They’re natural and outstanding, and around Grand Junction, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of like this. The new BLM plan would only protect a scant 40,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics—a quarter of the wilderness-quality lands BLM has acknowledged in the field office and scarcely a tenth of wilderness-quality lands citizens have identified in the region.

Places like Sinbad Valley and Kings Canyon could be subject to the impacts of unchecked off-road vehicle use and increased noise pollution. Contrast that with the acres prioritized for motorized recreation, and it is clear that the BLM is failing to strike a balance.

Learn more about Grand Junction's treasures that are Too Wild to Drill

The BLM’s failure to protect lands with wilderness characteristics is bad news for wildlands and for the economy. Outdoor recreation in the Grand Junction area, including the tourism it generates, depends on keeping land suitable for adventure, including wilderness experiences that Colorado’s canyon country is renowned for. The bikers, the hikers, the horseback riders and the campers make up important groups that contribute to a lively and balanced recreation community—a symbol of Grand Junction for many decades. But of the thousands of miles of trails in the area, only 178 miles are specifically for non-motorized purposes like hiking and biking.

This new BLM plan will last for the next 20 years, and quiet users will be squeezed out of these once-wild places. Loud and crowded are not common descriptions for Grand Junction public lands; the BLM’s plan is just out of place for the wildlands of the Colorado Western slope.