SALT LAKE CITY — A settlement approved by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver resolves a protracted, contentious legal battle pitting off-highway vehicle groups, multiple rural counties and the state of Utah against environmental organizations that wanted the lines redrawn or erased on 20,000 miles of recreation trails.
With a compromise reached, the Bureau of Land Management in Utah will spend the next eight years on a do-over of 13 travel management plans covering more than 6 million acres of public lands in eastern and southern Utah.
"We think this has been a long time coming," said Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
That organization, joined by Grand Canyon Trust, Utah Rivers Council, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and six other groups sued in federal court after the BLM issued resource management plans in 2008, asserting the BLM violated several environmental laws when it designated the routes.
Groups challenged the travel plans' impacts to cultural resources and the BLM's failure to adequately consider resulting damage, as well as the agency's failure to conduct surveys to determine the breadth of cultural artifacts at risk from potential OHV use.
The state of Utah, the Utah Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, eight rural counties, off-highway groups and multiple energy corporations intervened in the lawsuit, which involved travel management plans for the Moab, Monticello, Price, Richfield and Vernal field offices of the BLM.
“With the settlement agreement in place, we will work to make sure that BLM-Utah’s new travel management plans fully account for and protect Utah’s unique cultural resources and red rock wilderness lands,” Bloch said.
“The negotiations leading up to the settlement agreement were hard fought and contentious. In the end, we came to a place that provided sufficient certainty to the conservation groups that BLM would take seriously its responsibilities to minimize the impacts of off-road vehicle use on all public resources, including wilderness,” he added.
The settlement, reached in January but formalized in an order issued Wednesday, involves some of Utah's most popular recreation areas and landscapes rich with cultural artifacts, including the San Rafael Swell, Nine Mile Canyon, Paunsaugunt north of Kanab, Dolores River, Gemini Bridges and the Book Cliffs.
Paul Turcke, who represented a coalition of off-highway user groups, said the 2008 plans under contention put in designated routes where they already existed — in contrast to previous resource management plans that did not delineate where off-road travel could take place.
The practical effect of no designated routes meant there were no restrictions in place at all, he said.
"We supported that (the designated routes)," he said. "We want to have an actively managed system of recreation that includes not only motorized uses but nonmotorized uses as well. We obviously want to avoid loving these areas to destruction."
Off-highway enthusiasts objected to the lawsuit seeking more scrutiny and closure of routes. The groups argued that the 2008 plans closed nearly half the existing routes and trails and put in "severe" restrictions on all recreational uses, including mountain biking.
"Outdoor recreation is a huge priority on public lands and particularly lands in eastern Utah," Turcke said. "We want to make sure people can continue to have reasonable access to a lot of these areas."
Turcke said the settlement, which closes the door on the lengthy litigation, is unique compromise between OHV groups and the environmental community.
"It was a very balanced process and one in which all the parties see enough benefits in the settlement that it is preferred rather than years of litigation," he said. "The people who make noise on both ends of the spectrum create an opportunity for me to work in the middle. That is what we are trying to do with this settlement."
Rural counties and the state of Utah have not signed off on the settlement and urged that it be rejected. What happens in that aspect of the case has yet to be determined.