Victory! Court decision protects Utah wilderness from uncontrolled off-roading

Henry Mountains as viewed from Fiddler Butte.

Soren Jespersen, The Wilderness Society

A BLM plan would have allowed rampant off-roading in Utah's redrock country, but conservationists have won the day for Utah wilderness.

Utah's magnificent red rock canyon country was defended in federal court in early November when a judge struck down significant parts of a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Resource Management Plan, on the grounds that the plan violated federal environmental and historic protection laws. The ruling effectively put the brakes on a Bush-era management scheme that wrongly prioritized uncontrolled off-road vehicle use over the area's threatened natural and cultural resources.

The Wilderness Society and a coalition of conservation groups led by Earth Justice and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance challenged the plan in an attempt to bring balanced management to Utah’s spectacular public lands. The plan, developed by the BLM for the Richfield Office, endangered world-renowned southern Utah wilderness landscapes, as well as native wildlife and areas of cultural importance.

Utah's world renowned landscapes at stake

Some landmarks of the American West, such as Butch Cassidy's infamous hideout, Robber's Roost, will now have a chance to be preserved by an informed land management plan. Other natural and cultural sites that will benefit from this ruling are the Dirty Devil Canyon complex, the Henry Mountains (the last mountain range to be mapped in the lower 48 states) and Factory Butte.  

(Pictured above) Butch Cassidy's Robber's Roost hideout.

"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." -Nada Culver, The Wilderness Society

The federal judge's ruling:

  • Directs the BLM to explicitly protect wildlife, plants, air, water, wild areas and backcountry recreation from poorly planned off-road vehicle trails
  • Requires the BLM to conduct intensive, on-the-ground surveys to identify and protect historic and cultural resources before authorizing off-road vehicle use
  • Finds that the BLM’s failure to designate the Henry Mountains as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern—which would give needed protection to the area's bison herds and large expanses of remote, scenic lands—violated federal law
  • Orders the BLM to consider information supporting the eligiblity of Happy Canyon and the spring areas of Buck and Pasture Canyons for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Other Utah areas at risk from Bush-era plans

The impact of this decision highlights the fatal flaws that are also found in five other BLM management plans in eastern Utah. The Richfield plan is just one of six land use plans—covering more than 11 million acres of eastern and southern Utah—that the Department of the Interior finalized in October 2008. Together, these management plans were a last-ditch attempt by the Bush administration to leave their stamp on Utah’s landscape by prioritizing unmanaged off-road vehicles and energy development over protecting Utah’s uniquely magnificent red rock canyon country. 

“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.”

Dirty Devil Canyon complex as viewed from Fiddler Butte. Photo: Soren Jespersen, The Wilderness Society

Conservationists have challenged all six BLM plans in court. The Richfield RMP is the first of the six to be subject to a court ruling.

While there's a place for recreation and development on many of our public lands, The Wilderness Society believes that some places that are simply too wild to be developed.

Today, less than a quarter of America's public lands have some kind of wilderness protection, which is why The Wilderness Society continues to work for a balanced approach to managing our nation’s public lands.