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Judge’s road ruling is a travesty

Opinion – The Richfield Reaper

Posted 11/19/2013

Richfield, Utah – A ruling issued last week by U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball has the potential for devastating effects on the region as well as the public’s ability to access federally administered land.

Kimball’s ruling throws the entire travel plan for the 2.1 million acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management’s Richfield office into question. How the ruling will ultimately affect motorized access is not yet known, but it carries the possibility of being an economic nightmare for the region.

 

Off-highway vehicle users represent a significant portion of the tourism industry in south central Utah. If Kimball’s reversal of route designations on BLM land means that OHVs are no longer allowed on the 2.1 million acres of land administered by the Richfield BLM office, the results could be devastating.

The ruling plays right into the positions taken by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other radical environmentalist groups.

Attacks on the travel plan are not new. Environmentalists have been making claims for years about the BLM’s resource management plan that are not intellectually honest.

One of the big talking points for SUWA, is that the travel plan was some kind of last minute designation made by the outgoing administration of George Bush in 2008. However, the truth is that the BLM travel plan was the product of nearly a decade of work by officials working with communities and the public.

The process was long, detailed and open to the public every step of the way. Public comments were gathered, acknowledged and implemented in the plan. Parts of the plan were changed in response to public comment in order to better preserve resources on BLM land.

While SUWA falsely represents that the travel plan was some type of rush job foisted on the American people by a lame duck president, the truth is that it took many years to develop and implement, and that Bush had nothing to do with it.

Another mischaracterization about the travel plan championed by environmental organizations is that it somehow opened up land to OHV travel. The reality is that prior to the motorized vehicle travel component of the BLM’s resource management plan, the vast majority of the BLM lands were legally open to cross-country travel. This meant that anyone on an ATV, OHV, motorcycle or pickup truck could drive anywhere they could get a vehicle to go without restriction.

The implementation of the travel plan closed the vast majority of the open access and limited it to existing trails. The BLM didn’t build more than 4,000 miles of roads and trails after the travel plan was adopted, it simply limited travel to pre-existing access ways.

The BLM also didn’t just approve travel on all existing roads. Several hundred miles of trails were closed, while more than 500 miles of trails had seasonal or other restrictions placed on them. However, Kimball stated in his ruling that by closing trails, it would increase traffic on other trails, triggering a requirement for more in-depth study by the BLM.

If SUWA was interested in the truth, it would recognize that the BLM’s travel plan represents a compromise in which ATV users and advocacy groups made huge concessions.

The problem is that SUWA and other environmentalist groups are not interested in compromise. They want it all.

It doesn’t matter that the only way older people, such as disabled veterans, can see and experience Utah’s share of BLM land is on an OHV. Environmentalists don’t care that their litigious pursuit of policies of anti-access are discriminatory against seniors and people with handicaps. Public lands are for the public, not just those who can carry a backpack 20 miles.

Those with handicaps, senior citizens or those who have small children will miss out on opportunities to experience many great places if Kimball’s ruling results in shutting down motorized access.

The main problem with Judge Kimball’s ruling is that it continues the backward approach that the burden of proof rests on those who want to keep routes open. The vast majority of these roads and trails have been used for decades. It seems that if public access to these trails is to be closed, the burden should be on those who want to close them.

If a trail or road is to be closed, a compelling reason should be offered for the closure.

Closing public access to an area for which access has been open for decades feels like a land grab and a way to ensure use is only allowed for one small special interest group.

Kimball’s ruling is that there hasn’t been enough archaeological cataloging of possible damage caused by these routes. Again, this is suspect reasoning. Whatever damage there is to the archaeological resources on roads and trails, happened decades before the RMP. The travel plan as written, was a way to limit damage — archaeological or otherwise — to the roads and trails, rather than across the entire 2.1 million acres of BLM land administered in Richfield.

Kimball’s ruling also appears to be naïve to the realities of land management on the ground. The level of archaeological cataloging he is requiring, is prohibitively expensive when applied to more than 4,000 miles of roads and trails. It was also not part of the legal protocol when this plan was developed.

If access to these roads and trails is dependent on these in-depth archaeological surveys, it may take years before they are open. It seems like the court has allowed SUWA to use an indefinite delaying tactic by raising the burden of archaeological studies to an unrealistic and possibly unattainable level.

A key justification for pursuing route closures cited by SUWA, is that it would protect archaeological sites from looting and damage. However, this line of reasoning is also nonsensical. If criminals don’t care about the laws regarding archaeological sites, they surely won’t care about laws that close trails. In essence, access to the sites would be open only to criminals.

In the past 20 years, no group has lost more access to public lands than those who access them on motorized vehicles. Most of these restrictions have been good, because they limit resource damage by requiring people to stay on trails or designated play areas. However, if those trails and play areas are shut off, it kills not only the OHV industry, but the tourism industry as well.

Meanwhile, environmentalist groups — funded by out of state interests that couldn’t find Factory Butte on a map — have continued to take more and more.

It’s time to stop.

This ruling needs to be appealed by the BLM. County governments need to step in and make their voices heard. The public needs to talk to its elected officials and let them know that these efforts to shut down motorized access are unacceptable. This needs to be fought at every level.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]

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