Conservation groups are praising a federal court ruling that strikes down portions of a Bureau of Land Management plan that would allow widespread use of off-road vehicles in a section of Utah’s red rock country. But beyond environmental politics, the ruling is a welcome development for those who would hold federal land managers more accountable for the way they set forth policies for land use in sensitive areas.
At the heart of U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball’s ruling against the BLM Richfield District is a stinging criticism of the agency’s process in coming up with the district’s Resource Management Plan. In short, the plan is the product of sloppy work that lacks specificity, transparency and a clear rationale for it’s ultimate conclusions. Rejection of the plan sends a clear message to the BLM to improve the quality of its assessment processes, and it’s a message we expect the bureau to take seriously.
The plan in question would have set forth the parameters for land use on 2.1 million acres between the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Capitol Reef National Park. It would have authorized the use of 4,000 miles of off-road vehicle routes through areas of rare landscape and pristine views.
Conservationists contended it wrongly prioritized ORV use over other potential uses. Kimball found the BLM is simply not able to defend its choice of routes or to adequately explain the process in which those choices were made. "Contrary to the BLM's assertion, this is not a case where there appears to be mere disagreement about which routes were chosen," Kimball wrote. "Rather, the case represents a failure to provide enough information or analysis for someone other than the BLM to know why or how the routes were chosen."
The question now is whether the same analytical shortcomings contaminate five other BLM management plans in Utah that have been similarly challenged but not yet litigated. In the Richfield case, Judge Kimball ordered the agency to go back to the drawing board and conduct on-site surveys of cultural and historic resources before authorizing ORV use. While at the drawing board, the BLM would be wise to make sure its other management plans can pass muster under the same concerns.
Setting forth the proper balance for land use on pristine acreage valued both by recreation and conservation interests is a challenging and important obligation. In this instance, the BLM failed to meet that obligation in a way that ensures confidence in its overall vision or in the processes it uses to execute that vision.
The BLM should regard the court ruling as a call for introspection and a review of the way it has gone about determining the best use for the precious acres under its authority.