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Once again, the Bureau of Land Management is refereeing a debate over how much motorized use should be allowed in one of southern Utah’s scenic outdoor recreation playgrounds.
This time the focus is on the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges area outside Moab, where the agency is accepting public comment through Friday on how many of the existing 1,127 miles of routes to close or restrict to motorized vehicles.
Grand County officials joined environmentalists in endorsing a conservation-oriented plan, known as Alternative B, that would close about 400 miles of existing routes to off-road vehicles, such as UTVs, ATVs and dirt bikes. In the county’s official comments to the BLM, County Commission Chairman Jacques Hadler argued this alternative best balances the needs of various recreation groups while still leaving 78% of the planning area within a half mile of a motorized route.
“Alternative B still heavily favors motorized recreation, but provides for a small but non-trivial percentage of the area (22%) to be out of earshot of a motorized road or trail,” Hadler wrote.
Gemini/Labyrinth is just the third of 11 BLM travel plans being redrawn under a court order resolving lawsuits SUWA successfully litigated against six resource management plans approved in 2008. Authored by the outgoing George W. Bush administration, these plans, covering 6 million acres in the southern and eastern parts of Utah, welcomed extractive industries and motorized recreation into many places that conservation groups argued deserve protection.
Much is at stake with this planning process, with motorized groups pushing to keep as much of the state’s networks of motorized routes on public lands open as possible.
Utah already has plenty of national parks, designated wilderness and other areas where motorized access is heavily restricted, argued Ben Burr, executive director of BlueRibbon Coalition, which advocates for increased motorized access.
The BLM travel planning areas — covered in the Price, Vernal, Kanab, Moab, Richfield and Monticello field offices — provide opportunities that are available to a multitude of uses.
“They need to stay that way for the most part,” Burr said. “We’re talking about areas outside of Kanab, a lot of areas in Emery County and Uintah County. You have all these rural communities that are trying to build recreation-based economies and the travel networks are the foundation of that, and people’s ability to get in and access the wide range of recreation experiences that the routes provide access to.”
But the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Grand County say the existing route networks around Moab were haphazardly created over the decades, largely in response to mineral exploration dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. The area around Gemini Bridges is a case in point.
The travel plan, covering 300,000 acres bound by the Labyrinth leg of the Green River, U.S. Highway 191 and Canyonlands National Park to the south. Where uranium and other mineral prospectors once plied these canyons and mesas, the area is now popular with dispersed camping, mountain biking, motorized sports, and slacklining.
“The present road network is not the result of a careful planning process that kept recreational opportunities in mind,” the county said in its comments. “Rather, it is largely the result of historical accident, with the location of old seismic lines and mineral exploration routes from decades ago playing a dominant role in where motorized routes are located today.”
Common to all four plans is a 185-mile network of maintained roads, all open to motorized use without restriction. The difference among the four lies with how the BLM would manage the remaining 930 miles of minimally maintained routes. The BLM’s compromise revision calls for retiring 168 miles, leaving 653 miles open to motorized use and the remaining 109 miles open with restrictions.
But Grand County officials want the BLM to go further, advocating for an alternative that would close about a third of the routes. This alternative would keep motorized use out of much of the Labyrinth Canyon river corridor, which is designated wild and scenic, eliminating routes along some canyon bottoms, and reduce route densities around Gold Bar Rim, Deadman Point, Day Canyon, Ten Mile Point and other scenic spots.
“At the end of the day, this would not eliminate access. This wouldn’t cut people off from being able to visit Labyrinth Rims and Gemini Bridges,” said Laura Peterson, a SUWA staff attorney. “But what it would do is establish some sort of balance between motorized recreation, between quiet recreation, and between protecting resources, protecting soils there, protecting vegetation, protecting cultural sites. It’s an incredibly culturally rich area that tends to be concentrated in the canyons and the river corridor.”
But Burr isn’t buying SUWA and the county’s position, claiming that the routes themselves impact less than 1% of the landscape. The existing route networks serves the recreating public well and many routes have already been closed during the 2008 planning process, he said.
“When you then start looking at what each of the routes are used for, especially in this area that gets such a wide range of recreation use, a route that you might not understand why it’s there because it doesn’t cater to your interests, may have a really important need for another user,” Burr said. “A lot of the spurs that go to overlooks over the canyon, those are some of the best dispersed campsites in the state. A lot of them are developed. They have signs, they have marked routes leading to them.”
SUWA contends motorized users would still have access to so much terrain under the conservation alternative, including the 1,400-acre White Wash OHV area. Meanwhile, broad environmental benefits would be accomplished by keeping vehicles out of riparian areas, river corridors and canyon bottoms.
“You’re looking at ratcheting back a little bit to protect other resources, which is what BLM is ultimately required to do under the law,” Peterson said. “They have to minimize the damage from off-road vehicles.”