The Bureau of Land Management announced the release of the final Travel Management Plan for the San Rafael Desert, which designates official routes for off-road vehicle travel. The final plan is a modified version of the least restrictive alternative, designed to emphasize the “maximum mileage available for OHV recreation,” according to BLM documents.
“The BLM had an opportunity to get things right here… it’s unfortunate to see them going back to the old standard of just designating any line on a map,” said Laura Peterson, spokesperson for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, in a conversation with the Moab Sun News.
The new plan for San Rafael Desert roads is part of the settlement of a 2008 lawsuit between the BLM and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance over claims that the BLM had not duly mitigated the impacts of off-road travel, as required by federal law.
As part of the 2017 settlement, the BLM agreed to revisit 13 Travel Management Plans throughout Utah, including for the San Rafael Desert.
The process began with an evaluation of existing routes in the area, which is bounded on the north by I-70, on the west by Highway 24, on the south by the border between Wayne and Emery Counties, and on the East by the Green River. The BLM identified 1,180.8 miles of existing roads and trails within those boundaries.
During planning, the BLM held several public hearings and solicited public input, receiving over 180 comment letters. Planners created a set of plan alternatives to organize and evaluate planning approaches.
Alternative A would have left the 2008 existing management strategy unchanged. Users, conservation advocates and the BLM all agreed that the 2008 plan lacked clarity and completeness in defining travel restrictions in the San Rafael Desert.
Alternative B emphasized resource conservation over other values, Alternative C prioritized a balance between multiple land uses, and Alternative D prioritized access to public lands.
“Alternative D proposes a route network which emphasizes maximum mileage available for OHV recreation,” reads the BLM’s August 2020 “Finding of No Significant Impact” document related to the plan.
The original Alternative D proposed closing about 26% of inventoried miles, limiting about 12% by either width or type of vehicle allowed, and keeping the remaining 62% open without restrictions.
After considering public input, the agency chose to further modify Alternative D by closing more routes that were being reclaimed, or that are “without connectivity or purpose, or that did not sufficiently minimize damage and impacts to sensitive cultural, riparian, and biologic resources.” The final alternative closes about 35% of inventoried miles.
Groups that have been active participants in the planning process are not satisfied with the final result. SUWA issued an Aug 24 press release condemning the plan.
“Left unchecked, this plan will forever change the area’s stunning and remote wild lands, turning it into a playground for off-road vehicles,” the release says.
SUWA had proposed a different option, dubbed “Alternative G,” during the planning process, which would have designated 333 miles of open OHV roads in the management area. The current plan has over 700 miles of open OHV routes, with over 65 more miles open to limited vehicles.
SUWA disputes several hundred miles of routes included in the BLM’s inventory of existing routes, saying some of them were already completely reclaimed or didn’t exist at all, based on field studies conducted by SUWA staff.
There is a 30-day window to appeal the final plan. Peterson said SUWA is still reviewing the documents, and she can’t say whether the organization will choose to pursue an appeal.
“The BLM has a duty to minimize impacts of OHV travel routes and travel networks, so we’re looking to see whether they really did minimize that damage,” Peterson said.
Meanwhile, OHV advocates seem lukewarm about the plan as well.
Paul Anderson is the vice president of the Sage Riders Motorcycle Club, a Utah group that sponsors events and advocates for motorized access. Sage Riders had submitted lengthy comments to the BLM endorsing a minimally restrictive management approach in the San Rafael Desert.
“I’m still reviewing it,” Anderson said of the final plan. “There’s some stuff we like about it—and there’s some stuff we can live with.”
Plan adopts least restrictive alternative