Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

More ORV Trails in San Juan County

4:00 pm

River House Ruin (San Juan County).  © Ray Bloxham.

River House Ruin on the San Juan River. © Ray Bloxham.

Last summer, when the BLM’s Monticello field office announced a proposal to add more off-road vehicle (ORV) routes to its 2008 Travel Plan, we urged the agency to monitor and assess the 3,000 miles of existing ORV routes before adding new routes.  Now the BLM is accepting comments on its Environmental Assessment (EA), which in the absence of monitoring data, concludes that the new ORV routes will have no impact on the public lands or its resources.  Your voice matters — please tell BLM to do its homework before designating new ORV routes!

The BLM’s EA states that the new ORV trails would not change the “existing use pattern.”  What the BLM’s EA fails to mention is that this “existing use pattern” is illegal ORV use on user-created trails.  What’s more, the BLM alone has allowed this illegal “existing use pattern” to occur.  Rather than enforce it’s own Travel Plan, the BLM is now proposing to legitimize the illegal ORV use on the user-created trails.

Location, Location, Location!

The BLM essentially (and erroneously) concludes that the low mileage of proposed new routes (10 miles) equates to low impacts.  This is bad math and bad analysis.  These new ORV routes are proposed in Recapture Canyon, at the base of Wingate Mesa west of White Canyon, near Lake Canyon, and along the San Juan River east of Comb Ridge.  These routes are located in floodplains, riparian zones, areas known to have irreplaceable archaeological sites, and in lands with wilderness character.   In short, these new ORV routes fail to comply with federal regulations requiring the BLM to minimize impacts of ORV route designation on natural and cultural resources, and on other public land users (read the Environmental Assessment).

BLM, Do Your Homework First

The BLM’s 2008 Travel Plan states that the Monticello BLM will develop an ORV monitoring plan and provide enhanced enforcement for more effective management of ORV use.  The ORV monitoring plan was deemed necessary due to the large number of significant cultural sites deemed eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and the continuing identification of yet unknown sites.  Six years later, we’re still waiting for that monitoring plan and data collection in order to assess the impacts that are occurring along the 3,000 miles of currently designated routes.

Simply put, the BLM is putting the cart before the horse.  Adding these illegally pioneered ORV trails to the BLM’s official travel plan legitimizes unauthorized ORV use and sends the message that the BLM will eventually reward the creation of illegal trails by adding those trails to its travel plan.

Please send a letter to the Monticello BLM office stating:  Do not designate new ORV routes in proposed wilderness or other ecologically sensitive areas; and before designating any new ORV routes, monitor existing ORV routes, close redundant routes, and close routes that are currently impacting natural and cultural resources.  Click here to send your message.

Liz Thomas

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.


Mathew Gross

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: Park Service Gem or ORV Playground?

11:07 am

Glen Canyon NRA

Glen Canyon NRA. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

The National Park Service (NPS) is requesting comments on its draft Off-Road Vehicle Plan for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (GCNRA).   Your comments could help decide the fate of this remarkable landscape.

The GCNRA encompasses 1.25 million acres of land, and includes some of Utah’s most remote and exceptional public lands.  It is surrounded by the equally impressive landscapes of Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks, the Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, BLM-managed wilderness-quality lands, and the Navajo Nation.

NPS is drafting an off-road vehicle (ORV) plan and is proposing to legitimize and expand the existing, unauthorized ORV use within GCNRA.  The proposed plan includes the use of street legal ATVs on all paved routes, all types of ORVs on all dirt routes in the GCNRA (except in the Orange Cliffs), and ORV use on several additional designated ORV routes.  Conversely, the adjacent NPS-managed Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks prohibit the use of off-road vehicles (including street legal ATVs) within their boundaries.

Glen Canyon NRA

Glen Canyon NRA. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

Congress designated the GCNRA in 1972 to “. . . preserve the scenic, scientific, and historic features contributing to public enjoyment of the area . . .” in addition to providing for “public outdoor recreation use and enjoyment” of Lake Powell and the adjacent lands.  Although the most visited feature of the GCNRA is Lake Powell, the remaining 87% of the GCNRA is largely undeveloped, containing pre-historic cultural sites, wildlife habitat, and outstanding opportunities for a pure wilderness experience.  In fact, NPS has recommended nearly one-half of the lands within the GCNRA for wilderness designation.

No Shortage of ORV Routes
There are thousands of miles of ORV routes on public lands managed by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service in southern Utah that provide ample motorized recreation opportunities.  Simply put, there is no compelling need to authorize ORV use in an area as magnificent as the GCNRA. 

Glen Canyon NRA

Glen Canyon NRA. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

Before NPS can approve such use, it must comply with Executive Order 11644, signed by President Nixon in 1972.  The Order requires NPS to: protect the natural resources and public lands from ORV impacts; promote public safety of all users of those lands; and minimize impacts to natural resources and the conflicts among various users of those lands.  NPS can allow ATV and other ORV use on routes and in “open areas” only after NPS has determined that such use will not affect the natural, aesthetic or scenic values of the areas in which the routes or open areas are located.

Not surprisingly, NPS’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement acknowledges that authorizing street legal ATV and off-road vehicle use in the GCNRA will have direct and indirect impacts on its sensitive resources, including soils, vegetation, wildlife and cultural resources.

Please tell NPS to preserve Glen Canyon’s scenic landscape and cultural history rather than invite unmanageable off-road vehicle use.

NPS requires that comments be submitted no later than March 4, 2014:

  • Via its web page
  • Or by U.S. Postal Service: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Attn: ORV Plan/Draft EIS, PO Box 1507, Page AZ  86040

Click here for suggested points to make in your comments.


Liz Thomas

Tell the BLM: Protect Recapture Canyon’s Archaeological Treasures

3:09 pm

Recapture Canyon Off-Road Vehicle Right-of-Way

The BLM’s Monticello field office is requesting comments on a proposal for a new network of off-road vehicle trails in Recapture Canyon. This proposed route network includes the illegal route that was constructed in Recapture Canyon in 2005.

BLM should maintain the closure in order to protect the resources

Click on the map to view proposed Rights of Way in and near Recapture Canyon (opens in PDF).

Click on the map to view proposed Rights of Way in and near Recapture Canyon (opens in PDF).

After the illegal trail was constructed in 2005, BLM conducted a cultural resource survey along the illegal trail and identified nearly 300 cultural sites in or near the trail.  The BLM eventually issued an official Closure Order for this illegal route to protect the cultural resources that were at risk of being damaged by use of the unauthorized trail.  Importantly, the BLM’s Closure Order states specifically that off-road vehicle use in the area is causing, or will cause considerable adverse effects to cultural resources.

Tell the BLM: Protect Recapture Canyon’s Archaeological Treasures.

The Place

Recapture Canyon’s stream provides year-round lush habitat for wildlife.  This stream is almost certainly the reason that the Ancestral Puebloans began inhabiting Recapture Canyon nearly 2,000 years ago.  Remarkable remnants from these agrarian communities, many eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, have been preserved through the centuries in this quiet canyon.

An archaeological ruin in Recapture Wash. Photo courtesy of Great Old Broads for Wilderness.

The Hopi Tribe has requested that the BLM continue its closure order due to the sensitive nature of the cultural resources in the canyon.  The Salt Lake Tribune has editorialized against rewarding illegal trail construction by approving the right-of way, and emphasized the need to maintain the closure to protect the archaeological treasures.

Yet San Juan County continues to pressure the agency to grant a right-of-way to the county for the illegal off-road vehicle trail and several other new trails on the rim of the canyon.

The Right Thing

There is no shortage of off-road vehicle trails in San Juan County, where enthusiasts can enjoy over 4,000 miles of trails on public lands.  The BLM has a duty to protect Recapture Canyon’s stream, wildlife habitat, and the ancient Ancestral Puebloan sites, rather than grant an off-road vehicle right-of way to the county that will put nationally significant resources at risk of damage and destruction. The agency should do the right thing, and deny the county’s right-of-way request.

Please take a moment to send a letter to BLM requesting that it deny the county’s right-of-way request for the proposed off-road vehicle trails in and near Recapture Canyon.

Liz Thomas

Preserving Utah Wilderness Could Protect Colorado’s Snow

2:48 pm

dustsnow2memeOver at HCN’s The Goat Blog, Sarah Jane Keller reports on a new study that shows how helping desert soil could save Western Colorado’s snowpack:

Southwest Colorado’s snowpack is the West’s hardest-hit when spring winds carrying tiny dust particles slam into the mountains. That cinnamon layer coating the snow means that it absorbs more of the sun’s radiation heats up, and melts faster than clean snow…. As water managers in the Colorado Basin plan for the region’s impending water crunch, and more dust is blowing around the West, they are starting to realize that dust is a hydrological game-changer.

The Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, in Silverton, Colo., began tracking dust on snow in the San Juan Mountains in 2003, but dust has been worse in recent years, including 2013. In a recent study looking at the combined impact of climate warming and dust on the Upper Colorado River Basin’s snowpack, researchers found that “extreme” dust years like 2009 and 2010 advance spring runoff timing by three weeks, compared to moderate dust years. That’s a total of six weeks earlier than runoff from clean snow.;

The new study “adds more detail to what earlier research has shown,” Keller writes: “That at least in the short term, dust has a bigger impact on the speed of mountain snow melt than increasing temperatures do.

For many years, SUWA has been pointing out the connection between protecting the wild lands of the Colorado Plateau with other critical issues like climate change and water allocation for the Colorado Basin.

That’s why it’s so critical to protect places like Greater Canyonlands, where an explosion of off-road vehicle use and mining and drilling has helped to hasten the seasonal demise of Colorado’s snowpack and the resulting pressure on the Colorado River’s 40 million water users.

Click here to learn more and to take action.

Mathew Gross