SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of conservation groups is hailing a federal judge's ruling Monday to strike down portions of the Richfield Bureau of Land Management plan they said gave deference to off-road vehicles at the expense of the environment.
"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 (Resource Management Plan) 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,” Bloch said.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance was among seven groups that filed a legal challenge to the Bush-era plans following their adoption in 2008, contending they imperiled pristine landscapes.
The Richfield plan covers 2.1 million acres that is mostly sandwiched between Capitol Reef National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It was the first plan to get its day in court, where critics detailed that its 4,000 miles of off-road vehicle routes threatened prime landscapes such as Factory Butte, the Henry Mountains and Dirty Devil Canyon.
In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball reversed the BLM's off-road vehicle designations and directed the BLM to complete on-the-ground surveys for historic and cultural resources before authorizing any off-road use.
"It's a new day for Utah's Red Rock country. 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."
"Contrary to the BLM's assertion, this not a case where there appears to be mere disagreement about which routes were chosen," Kimball wrote. "Rather, the case represents a failure to provide enough information or analysis for someone other than the BLM to know why or how the routes were chosen."
Additionally, the judge said the agency's failure to designate the Henry Mountains as an "area of critical environmental concern" violated federal law.
Bloch said the ruling raises questions about the legality of five other BLM management plans in the eastern half of the state that the groups contend suffer from similar legal problems. Conservationists have challenged all six plans in court. The Richfield plan is the first of the six to be litigated.
In their challenge to the Richfield plan, the groups said the plan allowed off-highway vehicle use on 1.9 million of those acres in routes detailed only in spreadsheets. The routes included 400 stream crossings, yet they said the BLM did not detail any impacts to water quality.
Kimball also ordered the BLM to re-evaluate information supporting the designation of Happy Canyon and the spring areas of Buck and Pasture Canyons for protection.
“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.”