SALT LAKE CITY — Utah environmental groups released a report card last week that sharply criticizes the Bureau of Land Management's oversight plan for off-road vehicles in southern and eastern Utah.
The federal agency acknowledged there is more work to be done but pointed out progress is being made.
BLM management plans for six areas of Utah were finalized in 2008. After two years, with new restrictions on off-road vehicle routes, the environmentalists argue those plans do not go far enough to protect public lands. The director of the BLM in Utah accepts the criticism and says they are working to protect the land.
ORV use on public lands kicks up the heated debate between those who want to restrict riding and those who want to open more areas.
"There's nothing wrong with ATV recreation," said Zach Frankel with the Utah Rivers Council. "The issue with the BLM is how (it is) managed."
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the Utah Rivers Council and the Utah Chapter Sierra Club give the BLM poor marks for protecting the environment and cultural resources from ORV damage.
Liz Thomas with SUWA said, "They haven't taken the necessary steps to protect these resources from the known damages that occur from off-road vehicle use."
Rural Utah counties, however, always want to be sure their viewpoints are considered in the discussion of federal public lands in Utah. Sevier County commissioner Gary Mason says these BLM resource management plans have a great impact on rural Utah counties, and he says those who live in the communities are concerned about any adjustments to the plans that would further limit ORV use.
In the report card issued by SUWA, however, the organization blasted public land managers for caving into local pressure and off-roaders.
"BLM merely copied and largely incorporated 'wish lists' of counties and ORV enthusiasts into its 2008 ORV plans," without doing its own homework to determine if the routes were necessary and appropriate, the report noted.
The result is "seriously flawed," plans with trails that have left "significant" long-term impacts on southern Utah's red rock landscape, according to the assessment. In this area, the organization gave the BLM an "incomplete grade."
In the seven areas that were evaluated, only in the category of progress did the federal agency earn a passing grade. The BLM scored a B for the improvements made in the 2008 plans, which closed off access to the Butler Wash area near Cedar Mesa and retained closures at Factory Butte and Recapture Canyon.
In 2008, when the BLM developed its first large-scale trail maps, it designated 20,000 miles of ORV routes in southern and eastern Utah — enough to reach from Los Angeles to New York more than seven times, the group said.
SUWA sued the BLM over the 2008 plans, but they are in settlement talks. The BLM limited ORV use to over 17,000 miles of designated trails in Utah, but the environmentalists argue 3,000 miles of trails still roll through streams and culturally significant areas. Closing those routes, they added, would still leave thousands of miles of open trails.
"There's ample scientific, objective reasons to protect these large wilderness areas from off-road vehicle use," Thomas said.
The organization also pointed out that the agency should only designate trails where there is a "realistic" possibility that BLM rangers can catch violators. BLM Director in Utah Juan Palma says they have completed a lot of trail work, such as putting up signs that indicate trail closures and more accurately mapping accessible areas.
The agency is also in the midst of updating management plans for more than 2 million acres in Beaver, Iron and Washington counties, where OHV access is unfettered. Those plans have not been updated for 20 years, and a multitude of OHV route closures are anticipated.
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