SALT LAKE CITY — Some of the most pristine and iconic landscapes in Utah are in peril because of a federal plan that allows thousands of miles of off-road vehicle routes — enough to trek from Atlanta to Anchorage.
That allegation, made by a coalition of environmental groups against the Bureau of Land Management, is a central theme of a lawsuit challenging the federal agency's Richfield resource management plan.
First adopted in 2008, the plan is one of several in Utah under assault by the groups in litigation that will finally get its day in court with a hearing set for July before Judge Dale Kimball.
Such land-use plans provide a blueprint for permitted activities such as off-roading, extraction of coal or oil and grazing.
Seven groups that include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association contend the BLM violated federal environmental laws because it failed to adequately consider and mitigate impacts that would result from the “spiderweb of routes” included in the plan.
A legal brief detailing their arguments has been filed in federal court, with the U.S. Department of the Interior required to render its response within the next couple of months.
The Richfield plan covers 2.1 million acres that is mostly sandwiched between Capitol Reef National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Landmarks include Factory Butte, the Henry Mountains and Dirty Devil Canyon.
Environmental groups assert the plan allows off-highway vehicle use on 1.9 million of those acres, routes detailed only in “cryptic spreadsheets,” with discussion of the harmful effects ranging from “skeletal to nonexistent.”
Routes include 400 stream crossings, yet the federal agency did not detail any impacts to water quality, ignored soil erosion that can result or the air pollution caused the machines, the environmental groups contend.
The area, too, was once home to Native American civilizations dating back more than 10,000 years.
“The prehistoric sites, including shelters and stone artifacts, contain a treasure trove of archaeological information that provides a glimpse into the lives of early inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau,” the brief states.
Although there is an abundance of these sites on the BLM land, the groups contend that less than 5 percent of it has been inventoried, giving rise to the risk much of it could be unknowingly lost or destroyed by recreationists.
The Richfield plan is one of six in Utah under legal challenge by the groups — plans they assert were rushed to approval in the final days of the Bush administration and heavily tipped in favor of resource extraction and other unsuitable land uses.