A Bureau of Land Management planning process to review the agency’s travel management plan in the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges area has again drawn out conflicting perspectives in Grand County on how public lands should be managed and how elected officials best serve their constituents.

While the county’s submitted comments are only a small part of the BLM’s extensive planning process, the discussion drew heated comments from members of the public and a lengthy discussion among commissioners.

The management plan

The BLM is reviewing 13 travel management plans for areas in Utah as part of the 2017 settlement of a lawsuit brought against the agency by the Southeast Utah Wilderness Alliance, which claimed the agency had failed to apply required standards when designating motorized routes. One of those plans covers the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges area, an area of over 300,000 acres mostly west of Highway 191 and north of the Colorado River, bounded on its west side by the Green River and by Interstate 70 in the north. The area contains over 1,200 miles of inventoried routes, according to a Mar. 23 BLM press release on the planning process.

Grand County is a cooperating agency in the process and in May submitted a letter to the BLM asking that the new plan take a “zoning” approach to facilitate the enjoyment of the area by a variety of user groups, including motorized and non-motorized recreation. [See “BLM reviews travel plan,” May 20 edition. -ed.]

“We think the travel plan should ensure that a reasonable percentage of the planning area is more than one mile from a road or motorized trail,” the May 18 letter reads. Under the current travel plan, about 95% of the planning area is within half a mile of a motorized route; the letter asks that the agency aim for 15% of the planning area to be a mile or more from a motorized route and 30% to be half a mile from a motorized route.

The BLM’s draft environmental assessment proposes four management alternatives for further study. The most conservation-focused of the draft alternatives still falls short of the commission’s request, reserving only 2.2% of the planning area to be more than a mile from a motorized route and 16.5% as half a mile from a motorized route.

In response to the draft alternatives and to a request from the BLM for more specific input, the Grand County Commission drafted two new letters to the agency. They were both unanimously approved at the Dec. 7 meeting. The first letter highlights the need to address conflicts between user groups, particularly between motorized and non-motorized use; the second includes a list of specific routes the commission thinks the BLM should consider closing. The list includes routes popular with both motorized and non-motorized users, such as the Gold Bar Rim route.

In the agenda summary and in the discussion, commissioners noted that the letters do not represent the commission’s recommendations for the BLM’s final decision, but rather recommendations for what possibilities should be further examined and considered.

Public comments and discussion

Several members of the public joined the Zoom meeting to weigh in both for and against the commission’s letters.

Patrick McKay, vice president of the advocacy group Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders, called in to express opposition to the letter.

“We view these letters as a complete betrayal of the motorized community by the Grand County Commission,” McKay said, noting that motorized recreation is a highly popular activity in the Moab area and brings economic value to the county. He said it would be unfair for motorized users to have to sacrifice routes for the sake of other groups.

“Motorized users are literally the only user group that have always been willing to share routes with other users,” he said. “We don’t demand exclusive access like many other groups do.” He said that in his trips to the planning area, he had not experienced conflicts with mountain bikers or other user groups.

“If Grand County wishes to create more recreational opportunities for non-motorized users, that should be done in a separate process, not the motorized travel plan,” McKay said.

Local resident Kent Green, who recently ran for the position of Moab mayor, also called in opposing the commission’s letter. Green has long operated a local guiding business that offers motorized tours. He not only opposed the letter but said it was just the latest example of the commission failing to represent the full spectrum of its constituents.

“I strongly believe that you’re catering to just a certain few,” Green said. “You’re not representing everybody. You’re only representing the people that you choose to represent.”

Clif Koontz, director of local advocacy group Ride with Respect, pointed out that achieving the commission’s objective of an alternative that leaves 30% of the planning area at least half a mile from a motorized route would necessitate the closure of hundreds of miles of routes.

“There are so many other tools that are highly effective,” Koontz said, such as education and enforcement, that could be used to minimize user conflicts while still allowing motorized access.

Other commenters weighed in supporting the commission’s comment letters. Sam Van Wetter, a Moab resident and organizer for advocacy group the Rural Utah Project, said he had also submitted a letter to the BLM, along with a group of Moab businesses who operate commercially on the Green River. That letter advocates for the closure of several motorized routes in the planning area along the river corridor, Van Wetter said, with the goal of restoring quiet on the river. He expressed support for the commission’s letter.

Commissioners addressed some of the comments in their discussion of the issue.

“The ‘no net loss’ rhetoric that’s coming from special interest groups… isn’t gonna fly moving into the future,” said Commissioner Sarah Stock, addressing offroad advocates who oppose any closures to motorized access. “We have more and more users on our public lands,” Stock said, which means increased user conflicts but also increased impacts. She pointed to studies that show how dust from disturbed areas can cover snowfields in the mountains, causing those areas to heat up under the sun and melt faster than they would if they were clean and reflective. The phenomenon threatens the local aquifer.

“As county leaders, we need to be able to look at the variety of impacts across the landscape and make decisions based on that,” Stock said.

Commissioner Kevin Walker challenged the idea that the current state of the planning area should be considered a fair and balanced “blank slate;” rather he described it as too open to motorized use. In response to Koontz’s point that the commission’s suggestion of 30% of the planning area designated as half a mile or more from motorized routes would require the closing of many trails, Walker agreed, arguing that if the desired outcome was the ratio described in the letter, then there are indeed too many motorized routes. In previous decades, the widespread motorized access was not as problematic because there were fewer users; with more people and more vehicles, both impacts and conflicts are increasing.

Commissioner Jacques Hadler spoke to clarify the concept of “user conflict” on trails, in response to some offroad advocates’ comments saying they had not experienced any.

“Conflict isn’t necessarily confrontation,” Hadler said. Motorized users may not be aware of river rafters being disturbed by noise from their vehicles, or of mountain bikers being disturbed by dust kicked up by their activities—they may not have a confrontation about the issue—but that doesn’t mean there is no user conflict, Hadler explained.

Walker agreed, and illustrated the point with a personal example: he’s stopped using certain motorized routes as running trails because, while they used to be only lightly traveled and enjoyable for running, they’re now too busy with vehicles to be pleasant for foot traffic. That’s a user conflict that motorized users would likely not be aware of.

“The point is, all of those conflicts are things you wouldn’t notice if you were in a Jeep driving the trail,” Walker said.

Commissioner Trisha Hedin said studies show that all forms of recreation, both motorized and non-motorized, have negative impacts on wildlife.

“We’re all users and we all have impacts on these lands,” Hedin said. She pointed out that the BLM has a mandate to protect the lands under its jurisdiction for multiple uses, and said she has empathy for residents who feel they’re not being listened to.

“We are representing Grand County,” Hedin said. “We want to make sure that we are, to the best of our ability, taking care of our environment, but also representing our constituents.”

Commission Chair Mary McGann addressed this point, saying, “Our job is not just to listen to what the public wants. That is an important, big part of our job, but our job is to look beyond that and look at what our future holds, and study, and find ways that we can protect and make sure that the generations beyond us have some type of water—that they can live here, so they can ride on the roads. If we destroy our water system, that’s not going to happen.”

“Sometimes you have to let go of something you really like in order to give to protecting what’s going to happen in the future,” McGann said.

Commissioners Hadler and Evan Clapper both noted that they wouldn’t want to see all the routes included in the commission’s list closed to motorized access, but they agreed that those closures should be within the scope of the BLM’s consideration.

The travel plan revision process will take several more months; the BLM expects it will be complete by May of 2023.