The 25th annual Easter Jeep Safari - which attracts some 1,100 four-wheel-drive vehicles a day to the area - will proceed as scheduled.
But the Bureau of Land Management says two different appeals of the permitting process that allow the Red Rock 4-Wheelers to use back-country trails could have implications far beyond future Jeep safaris."The appeals could challenge the very way we do environmental assessments," explained Brad Palmer, area manager for the Grand Resource Area of the BLM.
The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, based in Colorado, and Owen Severance, a southern Utah environmental activist, filed separate appeals of the BLM's environmental assessment of 28 four-wheel-drive trails in the Moab area. They are the same trails used by the Easter Jeep Safari in past years.
The appeals will now go before the Interior Board of Land Appeals.
The Severance appeal says the BLM failed to comply with its own regulations, charging the BLM did not conduct adequate archaeological surveys of the trails before granting the permits, even though the trails have been subjected to vehicle traffic for years.
"Does this mean we are supposed to conduct cultural inventories on all existing roads and trails?" Palmer said. "Does it mean that every time a grazing permittee drives across an existing BLM road we have to do cultural clearances? If someone comes in and wants a permit to film a movie, does that imply we must have to have a cultural inventory before they can drive on the road to wherever they are filming? Even if they are not filming on BLM lands? Potentially, these appeals could affect a lot of programs we manage."
The BLM position is that BLM regulations make archaeological surveys a subjective matter based on the application. The BLM determines the level of archaeological surveys through concurrence with the state historical preservation officer.
"If he doesn't think we have gone far enough, we go in and take a second look," Palmer said. "We complied with that."
Palmer has also met with state BLM officials to discuss the way environmental assessments are conducted on existing roads and trails. And state officials say they are satisfied with the process.
The Sierra Club appeal also addresses archaeological concerns, as well as riparian and wildlife issues.
"We are not trying to shut down the Jeep Safari," said Christine Osborne, public lands specialist for the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club. "But we feel there needs to be adequate analysis and some sort of cap on number of participants. The BLM projects it will continue to grow over the five years of the permit."
Osborne said the BLM's environmental assessments of the Jeep Safari routes indicate all have cultural resources, yet no mitigation of those resources is mentioned, and in many cases no inventory of the resources has been compiled.
"Our complaint is the environmental assessment was inadequate," she said. "It was a real cursory treatment of serious environmental impacts."
She added the pre-existing use of the trails by the Easter Jeep Safari does not diminish the need for adequate environmental analysis. "Some of the trails we have no problems with. Others we have major concerns on. And we want adequate analysis on all trails," she said.
Grand County officials have indicated that should the appeals jeopardize future Easter Jeep Safaris or any other such activities, the county may apply for ownership of the trails under a federal law designating any roads or trails in existence prior to October 1976 as public roads to be administered by the state or county.
That would remove from BLM jurisdiction any permitting processes involving the roads, placing it instead in the hands of county officials.
"There's no question the appeals could backfire on the environmental community," Palmer said. "If the county has ownership of the trails, the BLM has no real say how those trails are used."
When environmentalists last year tried to block an unrelated four-wheel-drive event in Arch Canyon, San Juan County applied for ownership of the trail under the provisions of the federal law. The BLM agreed with San Juan County that the Arch Canyon road is a county road not subject to BLM jurisdiction.
Environmental groups appealed that decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, but the BLM decision stands until the board makes its decision. The Arch Canyon road is currently managed as a public road by San Juan County.
Palmer said the recent appeals in Grand County will not stop the Easter Jeep Safari. But should the Interior Board of Land Appeals remand the decision back to the BLM for further consideration, Palmer is unclear what would happen next.
"We don't have the people or the money to conduct cultural inventories of every foot of every existing road across BLM lands," he said.
The BLM is currently making administrative determinations of all BLM roads and trails to determine whether they existed prior to 1976. The number of trails is estimated to be between 2,000 and 15,000.
"That's a wild guess," said Ted Stephenson, the BLM expert on the federal law. "And we're talking about the number of trails, not miles."
In the case of the Easter Jeep Safari, "We're not talking about new trails," added Tim Berry, land-use officer for the Red Rock 4-Wheelers. "We're talking about the same trails we have used in the past, the same trails we got permits for in the past. It was just a renewal of an existing permit."
The safari is scheduled for March 31.