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

Sen. Hatch Declares Herbert’s Land Grab Dead on Arrival

2:39 pm

Land Grab Billboard

Last Friday, Senator Orrin Hatch had some glum words for Utah legislators who support Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s quixotic wasteful attempts to get the federal government to hand over public lands to the state of Utah. Speaking before the Utah legislature:

Hatch told the Utah Legislature on Friday that its drive to gain control over public federal lands in the state isn’t likely to succeed anytime soon…

“We don’t have the votes right now, nor do we have support of the [Obama] administration” for the land-title transfer,” Hatch said in an annual appearance before the House. He added to the Senate, “I’m not sure how easy it would be with any administration.”

Yep. This crazy idea has been kicking around in the heads of certain Western ideologues since the Reagan and both Bush administrations — to no effect. But that hasn’t stopped Governor Gary Herbert from signing into law bills that continue to waste Utah taxpayer money on his pipe dream:

Two years ago, the Legislature enacted HB148 demanding control of most federal lands within the state — which it says was promised at statehood — but exempted all national parks and monuments except for Grand Staircase National Monument. Legislators expect the issue to land eventually in the courts.

HB 148 gave the United States government til the end of this year to hand over federal lands to the state of Utah. Yeah, so go ahead and mark that on your calendar.

The fact that such a transfer isn’t likely to happen — there’s the small matter of it being unconstitutional, as even the Governor’s own lawyers advised — hasn’t stopped the Utah legislature from doubling down on the dumb idea in this year’s legislative session:

Utah House Republicans spent their first caucus meeting of the 2014 Legislature rallying around the latest effort to take over the state’s federally controlled public lands.

“People say we can’t do it. Baloney. We can do it,” Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said…

After hearing from Noel and other members, the caucus voted unanimously to proceed with putting together a package of bills intended to make the case for the transfer of public lands….

RS2477 Ad

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, told the caucus that’s probably going to mean a legal battle.

“No matter what happens, it’s very likely we’re going to be in court,” Stratton said, possibly all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oh yes, court. Governor Herbert and the Utah legislature love wasting taxpayer money to make an ideological point in the courtroom. Cf, e.g.: Governor Herbert continuing to pour millions of dollars into attorneys, analysts, GIS staff, etc. to push his 25+ R.S. 2477 lawsuits that seek to give the state the right to be able to punch thousands of miles of roads into the heart of Utah’s red rock wilderness.

It may not be a prudent use of taxpayer money — but it will prove a point, right?

 

Mathew Gross

RS 2477 Roads Litigation Update: SUWA Heads into the New Year on a Strong Note

12:18 pm

Last year at this time we were reeling under the weight of the State of Utah’s 25+ newly filed R.S. 2477 lawsuits which claimed title to more than 14,000 roads covering more than 36,000 miles. Few wild places were spared from this onslaught. Not national parks. Not the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And certainly not Utah’s red rock wilderness.

A San Juan County RS 2477 Claim in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

A San Juan County RS 2477 Claim in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.


What a difference a year makes.

While all of these places are still threatened by the State’s tsunami of litigation, SUWA and its partners– working closely with more than two dozen attorneys from six national and local law firms and our own in-house legal team– have clawed our way to have a seat at the table. Much work remains to be done but it’s worth pausing to consider what we’ve accomplished:

  • SUWA has successfully intervened in the 18 cases that threaten Utah’s red rock wilderness. This is no small feat when you consider the sheer number of legal briefs, exhibits, etc. that had to be filed for each of these cases. It’s also notable given a string of close losses that we suffered from 2008-2011 which made it harder for us to intervene and participate as parties in these critical cases. Remarkably, the Obama Justice Department has opposed our status as an “intervenor of right” at every turn, arguing that only the United States should be able to fully defend against the State’s lawsuits.
  • Just last week a federal judge granted us the right to participate in the State’s so-called “preservation depositions” where the State is trying to memorialize the testimony of aged and/or inform witnesses.  These depositions are one of the State’s primary tools to proving its cases.  Prior to this ruling, we had to rely on the US Justice Department to ask our questions for us, which they didn’t always want to do.  This decision is a significant step towards defending Utah’s red rock wilderness.
  • The Tenth Circuit court of appeals recently (and provisionally, pending review by a three-judge panel) granted our motion to intervene in the United States’ appeal of a March 2013 decision by a federal judge which granted 12 rights-of-way to Kane County and the State.  These included the so-called “North Swag” route, a claimed highway (impassable in some places) within the Grand Staircase national monument and a wilderness study area.  The United States, State of Utah, and Kane County all strongly oppose our motion to intervene.

What hasn’t changed over the past year is the State’s zeal to do what it takes to be able to punch roads into the heart of Utah’s red rock wilderness. That’s why it continues to pour millions of dollars into attorneys, analysts, GIS staff, etc. to push these cases. In short, these lawsuits remain one the biggest threats we face today.
Thanks to your support, we’re starting to turn the corner and will be bringing the fight to the State in 2014.

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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