Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Grand County’s Proposed Public Lands Plan: How Bad Is It?

5:07 pm

We expected bad, but this is far worse.

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. Image credit: Josh Myers, winner of National Parks Photo Contest on Trails.

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. Image credit: Josh Myers, winner of National Parks Photo Contest on Trails.


Background: On April 9, 2014, the Grand County Council Public Lands Working Committee identified 3 alternatives, along with maps, for long term designations of public lands in Grand County as part of Representative Rob Bishop’s proposed land use bill for eastern Utah.

Unfortunately, even the best alternative (Alternative #3) proposed by the Working Committee would roll back environmental protection in Grand County.

All the alternatives ignored the public input that the county received. Of the 182 letters received by the Council from Grand County residents and business owners, nearly 90% favored strong wilderness and public lands protection.

And yet, the County’s best alternative (Alternative #3):

  • Protects just over half (58%, or 484,446 acres) of the proposed wilderness in Grand County — and then riddles that “protected wilderness” with ORV routes. The Working Committee decided that places like Porcupine Rim, Mary Jane Canyon, Fisher Towers, Goldbar Rim, the Dome Plateau, and most of Labyrinth, including Mineral, Hell Roaring, Spring, and Tenmile canyons, were unworthy of wilderness protection.
  • Would punch a hole through the heart of the Book Cliffs — one of the largest remaining roadless areas in the lower 48 states — to build a “Hydrocarbon Highway” for fossil fuels extraction. The county proposes a mile-wide “transportation corridor” (proposed as 2 miles wide in the other alternatives) to ship fossil fuels from the Uinta Basin and proposed tar sands mining in the Book Cliffs to dreamed-of refineries in Green River, or to the railway.
  • Leaves open to oil and gas drilling the entire view shed east of Arches National Park, including the world-famous view from Delicate Arch. The Working Committee rejected proposed wilderness areas east of Arches. This is the same area that caused a national uproar and sent Tim DeChristopher to prison when the George W. Bush administration sold the famous 77 oil and gas leases in its waning days. Under the county’s best proposal, leasing and drilling in that region would be allowed.
  • Allows oil and gas drilling and potash mining on the rim of Labyrinth Canyon (upstream from Spring Canyon). The lack of real protection in the greater Labyrinth Canyon area in all three proposals is a glaring and curious omission.
  • Supports continued off road vehicle abuse and offers zero concessions on ORV routes designated in the Bush-era BLM travel plan — even though the planning of those routes likely failed to follow the law. The county would codify the BLM’s Bush-era route designations even though a federal judge recently set aside a nearly-identical travel plan in the Richfield BLM office for failure to comply with legal mandates to protect archaeology, riparian areas and other natural resources.  It is likely just a matter of time before the Court overturns the challenged Moab travel plan.
  • Fails to protect Moab’s watershed. There is no wilderness proposed for the La Sal Mountains on US Forest Service land.
  • Prohibits the use of the Antiquities Act in Grand County — the same act that was used by three different Presidents to protect what is now Arches National Park. Although protection of Arches was opposed by Utah politicians, today Arches National Park injects more than $116 million into the local economy each year and supports more than 1,700 jobs in Grand County.

Alternatives 1 & 2 are even worse.  Both would impose a 2-mile wide transportation corridor for the Hydrocarbon Highway through the heart of the Book Cliffs.  This is wide enough to build an entire city within the corridor.  Alternatives 1 & 2 provide even less protection for Grand County’s proposed wilderness and less protection from oil & gas and potash development.

(more…)

Mathew Gross

Celebrating the 5th Anniversary of the 77 Lease Sale

3:28 pm

Today is a good day. Five years ago to this very date a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C. issued an order enjoining the Bush administration from issuing 77 oil and gas leases it sold in late December 2008 across several spectacular Utah red rock landscapes. Judge Ricardo Urbina’s decision, which was issued on Saturday, January 17, 2009 granted SUWA and its partners’ motion for a temporary restraining order and came literally at the 11th hour and only two days before the Bush administration left office.

The “it’s Christmas 2008, we’re going out of business and all our public lands must go” lease sale, as it’s variously been remembered, turned out to be a watershed moment in the Obama administration’s approach to oil and gas leasing on federal lands. Following Judge Urbina’s ruling and a decision by then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to formally withdraw the 77 leases from sale, the Interior Department began a top to bottom review of BLM’s oil and gas leasing program. That review culminated in new policies and programs that are intended to make sure BLM “thinks first, and leases later.”

One of these policies is BLM’s so-called “master lease plans” or MLPs which are intended to identify lands that will remain available for oil and gas leasing (and with the right stipulations) and which lands have other values that would be compromised by energy development (things like cultural resources, wildlife habitat, recreation, and wilderness). Think smarter zoning decisions that strive to reduce the level of conflict between the many competing uses of the public lands.

In Utah the first of these plans is being put together in the Moab area, which was ground zero for the December 2008 oil and gas lease sale. In typical BLM fashion nothing good comes easy and it’s taking a while to get this plan off the ground. We’re hopeful that the plans will better identify the places where oil and gas (and potash) leasing and development should and should not take place.

And how did it come to pass that there even was a December 2008 oil and gas “fire sale”? Just as it was leaving office, the Bush administration saddled Utah with six new land use plans (called resource management plans or RMPs) which made these kinds of bad leasing decisions possible. SUWA and its partners challenged those plans in court (as part of the same lawsuit that blocked the 77 leases). As many of you know this past fall we won a major victory when a federal judge held that several aspects of BLM’s Richfield RMP violated federal environmental and cultural preservation laws. We’re figuring out what that decision will mean on the ground – called the remedy stage of the litigation – and then will move onto challenging another one of the Bush RMPs.

But coming full circle – take a moment and revel in the key ruling we received five years ago. We couldn’t have done it without your help and support.

Steve Bloch

Victory! Court Strikes Down BLM Richfield Land Use Plan

4:00 pm

Richfield_RMPIt’s a great day for Utah’s redrock wilderness! Today the federal district court in Utah struck down significant parts of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) land use plan for the Richfield Field Office – a plan that prioritized off-road vehicle use above all else.  This victory for wilderness represents years and years of hard work by staff, members and supporters of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).

This ruling sends a clear message to the State of Utah and its counties that the Bush-era land use plans they supported will not be the final word on the protection of Utah’s remarkable redrock wilderness.

Here are the details: in 2008 the BLM released a land use plan for the Richfield Field Office (the “Richfield Plan”).  This plan designated 4,277 miles of dirt trails, tracks, and ghost-routes for off-road vehicle travel, relegating wilderness-quality lands to the scrap heap.  The Richfield Plan ignored wilderness, cultural resources, wildlife, vegetation, and other special values.

Considering the world-class features found in this area, this was a major travesty.  The Richfield Plan encompasses places like Factory Butte, the Henry Mountains, and the Dirty Devil.  Check out a few photos here.

A coalition of conservation groups, led by SUWA, challenged the Richfield Plan in court, seeking to bring back balance to the BLM’s management of this area.

Today, we learned that our challenge was successful.  Specifically, Judge Kimball:

  • Reversed BLM’s off-road vehicle (ORV) trail designations because BLM failed to minimize the destructive impacts of ORV use on streams, native plants, wildlife, soils and irreplaceable cultural sites and artifacts, as required by law.
  • Directed BLM to complete intensive, on-the-ground surveys for historic and cultural resources before authorizing ORV use.
  • Held that BLM’s failure to designate the Henry Mountains as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern—which would have given heightened protection this special place— violated federal law.
  • Ordered BLM to reevaluate information supporting the designation of Happy Canyon and the spring areas of Buck and Pasture Canyons for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

This ruling is a remarkable outcome that means the BLM will have to make significant changes to its management of public lands in the Richfield Field Office.

But this decision has further-reaching implications.  The Richfield Plan is just one of six Bush-era land use plans that were released as that administration was headed out the door.  Like the Richfield Plan, the other five are all efforts to memorialize a management regime that ignores wilderness protection in favor of ORVs and oil and gas drilling.  SUWA’s litigation challenges all six plans; this Richfield Plan was simply the first to be litigated.

Dirty Devil proposed wilderness. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA

Dirty Devil proposed wilderness. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA


Those other five plans all suffer from the same flaws overturned by the federal court today.  The BLM should expect a similar outcome.

Further, background information on the Richfield RMP can be found on SUWA’s website.  Photographs of the proposed wilderness areas at risk in the Richfield field office are also available.  In 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune and New York Times panned the Richfield RMP, raising many of the same flaws identified in the court’s decision.

SUWA and its conservation partners are represented in this litigation by Stephen Bloch and David Garbett from SUWA; Heidi McIntosh, Robin Cooley, and Alison Flint of Earthjustice; and by Robert Wiygul of Waltzer, Wiygul and Garside.  We offer our sincere gratitude to our friends at Earthjustice and Robert for their work in this matter. Big thanks also to the following friends and colleagues who toiled on these plans for years; today’s success would not be possible without them: Liz Thomas and Ray Bloxham (SUWA), Scott Braden, Tim Wagner, and Herb McHarg (former SUWA staff), Nada Culver (TWS), and Jerry Spangler (Colorado Plateau Archeaological Alliance).

Steve Bloch

Press Release: Court Strikes Down Controversial BLM Land Use Plan

10:44 am

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

November 4, 2013

 

Contact: Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3981

Court Strikes Down Controversial BLM Land Use Plan
BLM plan designated thousands of miles of ORV routes, placing iconic western landscapes at risk

SALT LAKE CITY Today the United States District Court for the District of Utah struck down significant parts of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Resource Management Plan for the Richfield Field Office, putting the brakes on a Bush-era management scheme that prioritized motorized recreation over all else.

A coalition of conservation groups led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and Earthjustice had challenged the plan (the “Richfield RMP”) in an attempt to bring balanced management to Utah’s spectacular public lands.  The plan developed by BLM threatened world-renown southern Utah wilderness landscapes like the Dirty Devil Canyon complex (including Butch Cassidy’s infamous hideout, Robber’s Roost), the Henry Mountains (the last mountain range to be mapped in the lower 48 states) and Factory Butte.  See photos here.

Specifically, Judge Kimball:

  • Reversed BLM’s off-road vehicle (ORV) trail designations because BLM failed to minimize the destructive impacts of ORV use on streams, native plants, wildlife, soils and irreplaceable cultural sites and artifacts, as required by law.
  • Directed BLM to complete intensive, on-the-ground surveys for historic and cultural resources before authorizing ORV use.
  • Held that BLM’s failure to designate the Henry Mountains as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern—which would have given heightened protection to its bison herds and large expanses of remote, spectacularly scenic lands — violated federal law.
  • Ordered BLM to reevaluate information supporting the designation of Happy Canyon and the spring areas of Buck and Pasture Canyons for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Under the Richfield RMP, BLM had designated over 4,200 miles of dirt roads and trails, enough miles to drive from Atlanta to Anchorage, for ORV vehicle use despite evidence of environmental damage and conflicts with other public lands visitors.

“This landmark decision is a resounding rejection of the BLM’s mismanagement of Utah’s stunning public lands,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.  “The Richfield RMP wrongly prioritized ORV use over all other uses of the public lands and neglected streams and special places worthy of protection.  The court didn’t mince words in its ruling that this violated federal environmental and historic laws.”

“Utah’s remarkable public lands deserve better than what they are getting from the BLM,” remarked David Garbett, a SUWA staff attorney.  “This decision is a first step in improving that situation.”

The impact of this decision raises serious questions about the legality of five other BLM management plans in the eastern half of the state of Utah that suffer from similar legal flaws.  The Richfield RMP is just one of six land use plans—covering more than 11 million acres of eastern and southern Utah—that the Interior Department finalized in October 2008.  Together, these RMPs were a last-ditch attempt by the Bush administration to leave their stamp on Utah’s landscape by prioritizing ORVs and energy development over protecting Utah’s uniquely magnificent red rock canyon country. Conservationists have challenged all six plans in court.  The Richfield RMP is the first of the six to be litigated.

“It’s a new day for Utah’s Red Rock country,” said Heidi McIntosh of Earthjustice.  “This far-reaching decision means BLM can no longer dismiss the value of wilderness, scenery, wildlife, and areas of cultural importance to Native Americans in favor of destructive ORV use.”

“This decision sends an irrefutable message to the BLM about the need for responsible management of the 11 million acres of public lands covered by all 6 challenged plans,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel for The Wilderness Society. “The BLM should heed this as a call to action and move forward now to address these flaws in all of the plans – minimizing damage from off-road vehicles and protecting natural and cultural values.”

“We’re thrilled by the district court’s decision,” said Bill Hedden, Executive Director of the Grand Canyon Trust.  “BLM’s refusal to conduct on-the-ground inventories for cultural resources that are being damaged and destroyed from off-road vehicle use was shocking.  Federal law requires BLM to do more to protect these irreplaceable cultural treasures and we’re pleased that the judge ordered BLM to do so.”

 

Background information on the Richfield RMP can be found on SUWA’s website.  Photographs of the proposed wilderness areas at risk in the Richfield field office are also available.  In 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune and New York Times panned the Richfield RMP, raising many of the same flaws identified in the court’s decision.

The conservation groups challenging the BLM’s 2008 land use plans in Utah include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Utah Rivers Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, National Trust for Historic Preservation and Rocky Mountain Wild.

The groups are represented by attorneys Stephen Bloch and David Garbett of SUWA; Heidi McIntosh, Robin Cooley and Alison Flint of Earthjustice; and by Robert Wiygul of Waltzer, Wiygul and Garside.

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BLM Views Arch Canyon through Road-Colored Glasses

10:36 am

Arch

The washed out route.
Photo by Liz Thomas/SUWA

With its clear, spring-fed perennial stream, its ancient cultural rock art and cliff dwellings, and its magnificent scenery, Arch Canyon is an exceptional place. Unfortunately, the BLM sees nothing there but a route for motorized recreation; all the other resources are forfeit to that single, destructive use.

We’ve repeatedly asked the BLM to close the route. So have the Hopi Tribe and the Utah Navajo Commission. We have engaged scientists to survey and inventory the route. They’ve concluded that off-road vehicle use increases the risk of damage and vandalism to the archaeological sites and is the primary cause of negative impacts to the riparian system.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the BLM claims that the 8-mile ORV route, which crosses the stream 120 times during the round trip, doesn’t hurt a thing. The BLM’s position is perfectly aligned with San Juan County’s (where motor vehicle routes are considered a birthright).

Recently, the BLM proposed to reroute a half-mile of the ORV route near the mouth of the canyon, claiming that it “is necessary because the existing road segment becomes impassable after heavy flooding.”  No surprise there — after all, it’s in a floodplain!

The choice between allowing San Juan County to gouge a new route in the canyon, versus allowing the county to reconstruct the washed out section of the route is a bogus one. Neither will protect the canyon’s resources.  Despite the agency’s history of taking orders from San Juan County, we are asking the BLM to select the only sane option: Close the 8-mile route.  We’re waiting for a response.

Arch1Arch2

Liz Thomas