SALT LAKE CITY — A school Trust Lands pilot project involving 28,000 acres in the La Sal Mountains aims to tackle impacts of a 41 percent increase in trails created by off-highway vehicle (OHV) use.
The La Sals project involves two chunks of property owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which is using money from an OHV surcharge of $1.50 per vehicle to fund a system of better-connected trails that accommodates use, yet closes some roads forged by trespass.
"There's an old joke that an OHV's front tires are blazing new trails while the rear tires are traveling on existing road," said SITLA's executive director, Kevin Carter.
After 15 months, the project has resulted in a complete inventory of trails and dirt roads contained in SITLA properties in San Juan and Grand counties. That inventory, completed last summer, found that since the last inventory in 1995, a multitude of new trails have been carved out by off-roading.
SITLA not only has the mandate to manage or lease its lands for the benefit of Utah schoolchildren, but also has the mission of incorporating good stewardship and conservation practices of that land within its purview.
"We thought this land would be a great candidate to demonstrate that stewardship," said Kim Christy, SITLA's assistant director over surface land management. "We are turning the tide on a problem we have been experiencing for decades."
The project proposes to leave open a little more than 135 miles of trails or roads, while closing 50 miles of trails, some of which are single-track trails for dirt bikes and others that are ATV-use only.
Those decisions on access were reached after a variety of meetings coordinated by SITLA that involved officials from both counties, the state Division of Wildlife Resources, state parks and numerous off-roading groups. They also reached out to adjacent landowners, such as the Forest Service, to come up with a trail system that is to be clearly marked and include pullouts with informational kiosks offering maps.
"Our goal was protecting the resources and stopping the degradation that was occurring," said Chris Fausett, a resource specialist with SITLA.
Which trails were closed and which remain open were based on a variety of factors, including an acknowledgement of county road claims, a trail's relationship within a larger trail system, if the road dead-ended and wildlife considerations.
Fausett said dead-end roads may encourage some riders to press on to carve out a continuation of the path, while a trail system that "loops" together provides a better recreational experience while minimizing impacts to the land.
Response from OHV enthusiasts has been generally positive, Fausett said.
"Of course, not everyone is 100 percent satisfied, but we have heard a lot of positive comments from these groups," he said.
Bob Turri, an off-roader and board member of SPEAR (San Juan County Public Entry and Access Rights), said SITLA's outreach to off-roaders was unprecedented.
"We were pretty excited about SITLA giving us an opportunity to participate," he said. "We normally don't see that. We were thrilled with what they did for us."
Turri said SITLA gave concessions on proposed road closures and in negotiations was "more than fair to us. I think they are one organization that understands if they don't provide for this type of use, there are users that will provide for themselves," by trespassing anyway.
In his 80s and a former Bureau of Land Management employee, Turri said SPEAR promotes responsible use of trails and tries to educate OHV users to stay on well-marked routes.
Christy pointed out that the travel plan actually creates new roads for OHV users, and the net result is about the same amount of roads as existed during the mid-1990s inventory.
SITLA hopes to highlight the accomplishments of the pilot project with an outreach campaign in late September before the start of the deer hunting season, which can result in damage to the land.
"We're asking for a disciplined approach to OHV use — an arrangement of tolerance," Christy said. "We want to be community player while maintaining our allegiance to the trust's beneficiaries."
SITLA manages lands granted to Utah at its statehood for the financial support of Utah's public schools and land-grant universities, such as the University of Utah and Utah State University. Its Permanent School Trust Fund topped a billion dollars for the first time last December.