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Looking for balance in Utah's red rock country: the motorized vehicle dilemma

Looking for balance in Utah's red rock country: the motorized vehicle dilemma

(Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance)

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Utah's wild red rock country is a landscape like no other. Its deep canyons, towering spires, and desert rivers are places that Utahns treasure and are the envy of visitors from across the world.

Just the names themselves — the San Rafael Swell, Labyrinth Canyon, or Dirty Devil — remind adventurers of trips with family and friends or times spent alone watching the sunrise or the Milky Way unfold over a dark night sky. Utah residents are lucky to have these magnificent public lands in their backyards.

Over the past 40 years, much of what makes these places so special has been put at risk by a dramatic increase in off-road motorized vehicles or ORVs — ranging from dirt bikes to side-by-sides — that go farther and faster. Today, it can be hard to escape the sight and sound of these vehicles throughout much of Utah's backcountry.

Because so much of southern Utah's red rock country is public land, the job of determining where motorized vehicle use is and is not appropriate falls on the Bureau of Land Management — a federal agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Unfortunately, some believe the BLM has a poor track record of managing motorized vehicle use in Utah. In the 1980s and 1990s, the agency allowed cross-country ORV use in many areas, which meant vehicles could drive virtually anywhere, regardless of the damage they caused along the way. After much wrangling, the BLM began to change those policies in the early 2000s and started designating specific routes and trails for motorized use.

Even with these changes, the agency still failed to control ORV use. In the final days of the George W. Bush Administration, the BLM released six management plans that blanketed eastern and southern Utah with more than 30,000 miles of motorized vehicle routes. Routes designated in these plans crossed directly through cultural sites and wildlife habitat, wove in and out of streams, and sometimes didn't even exist on the ground.

These wildly unbalanced plans were roundly criticized for their excessive ORV route designations and in 2013, a federal judge found those Bush-era travel plans to be unlawful. Under an ensuing settlement agreement between the BLM, conservation organizations and ORV groups, the BLM committed to preparing 11 new travel plans with more than just motorized users in mind.

The BLM has completed three motorized travel plans so far — two near Moab and one in the southern San Rafael Swell — and over the next few years will complete eight more plans. For the first time, the BLM is taking into account competing resource uses and acknowledging motorized vehicle impacts.

These new plans strive to strike a real balance between motorized and non-motorized users while also protecting the very reason people want to drive to such remote places in the first place: to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of Utah's public lands.

It's important to know that far from closing off public lands to motorized use, there are tens of thousands of miles of dirt roads and trails across the state that will remain open to ORVs. Claims to the contrary by some state officials and special interest groups – that the BLM's new plans will prohibit motorized use across much of southern Utah — are simply wrong

Much has changed in the decades since the BLM has started to grapple with ORV use. Visitation to Utah has skyrocketed fueled by the state's advertising campaigns and the rise of social media. More people are seeking out new types of recreation as technology changes. Today's ORVs are more powerful and faster than prior generations. The world is also facing a hotter, drier, and wilder climate, bringing new challenges to Utah's public lands and the creatures that call this place home.

Precisely because of these challenges, thoughtful and deliberate planning about where to allow motorized vehicles is critical.

The BLM's new travel plans are a chance to finally get this right: to ensure access to trailheads, scenic overlooks, and recreation opportunities, while also protecting Utah's spectacular backcountry.

You can learn more about the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance efforts on its website.

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Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance


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