SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly five years have passed since a young man no one had ever heard of was escorted out of the Bureau of Land Management's offices after tainting an oil and gas auction of 77 leases.
Activist Tim DeChristopher was eventually sentenced to prison for fraudulently bidding on those parcels, which were rescinded from bidding in 2009 by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar because he wanted additional review.
DeChristopher is free from federal prison, and the lawsuit challenging the BLM over the agency's management of the land finally got its day in federal court — on Tuesday.
The case no longer involves the contested leases, some of which have been returned for auction, but rather challenges six BLM resource management plans for Utah adopted in 2008 and the decisions contained in those plans over use of the land.
First up in the consolidated case was the Richfield plan, which designates thousand of miles of trails and roads for motorized use.
Before U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball, Steve Bloch with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance argued that the federal agency failed to follow its own regulations when it allowed more than 4,200 miles of trails to remain open for use by motorized vehicles.
He said the agency ignored impacts to wildlife, vegetation, soils, the watershed, endangered species and conflicts with other users.
The team of attorneys, which included Robin Cooley from Earthjustice, asserted the agency shirked its duty to compile and document the evidence of threats posed by off-highway vehicles in a host of areas — from impacts to air quality and cultural resources to climate change implications.
"The information on climate change did not affect their analysis in any way," Cooley said, adding that the BLM ignored data from it own sister agency, the U.S. Geological Survey. "This area is getting hotter and drier and we can expect more changes on the ground as a result."
She said the BLM's rationale for not addressing climate change into the plan was flawed.
"The BLM says it can't incorporate climate change because it can't quantify the impacts within the specific area," she said. "The agency just doesn't get a free pass if they can't quantify the impacts."
The attorneys complained that the damage by off-highway vehicle use is well-known and the agency failed to inventory those trails and their use for subsequent damage.
But Michael Thorp, an attorney representing the BLM, said the complaints lack any legal basis over a travel plan that actually sharply reduced the number of motorized routes.
"It was a methodic, painstaking and difficult effort to strictly adhere to the BLM mandate of multiple use," he said.
Prior to the Richfield travel plan's adoption, 77 percent of the area was open to off-highway vehicle use without restriction. The plan closed 345 miles of trails and imposed restrictions on another 548 miles of routes, Thorp said, eliminating the "free-for-all" that existed before.
"Potential impacts were very much reduced from prior open areas that no longer can be traversed upon," he said.
Shawn Welch, another attorney defending the plan on behalf of San Juan County, said it was important to note that the BLM's resource management plan encompasses 5.4 million acres, but of that only 2.1 million acres are directly managed by the agency.
"There are a lot of different lands involved and a lot at play in this plan when it comes to the agencies and entities involved," he said, adding that the BLM is required to consult with others and consider that information when it makes decisions.
"Millions of acres of land was open to cross-county travel," he said. "The court needs to remember that OHV means moms, dads and kids. While also recreational areas, these are access roads, roads that are used by people to access their land throughout the year."
Welch and Utah assistant attorney general Kathy Hill noted that the challenged trails have been used for years.
"There was no new designation of any new roads. These were fully open and already in use," she said.
Bloch said that argument wrongly assumes existing trails don't pose impacts.
"There is no wisdom here to be found in simply saying that BLM made a bad situation better," he said.
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