Champions of wilderness and historic preservation on Monday were hailing a Utah federal court ruling that invalidates parts of a BLM management plan that authorized a 4,277-mile "spider web" of motorized routes in the Richfield resource area.
U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball ruled the Bureau of Land Management failed to minimize the impacts of motorized use on the land and its resources and to inventory archaeological sites as required by federal law.
The decision puts "the brakes on a Bush-era management scheme that prioritized motorized recreation over all else," according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is leading a consortium of groups challenging six BLM resource plans approved in the waning months of the George W. Bush administration.
"It's a huge victory for Utah redrock wilderness. This is just the first of six cases, but this is a landmark decision that should resonate with Interior that all the plans suffer from the same legal flaws," said SUWA's legal director Stephen Bloch.
The Richfield plan covers 2.1 million acres in Sevier, Garfield, Wayne and Piute counties, an area bound by Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks, then extending north up the Sevier Valley. The Henry Mountains, Factory Butte, the Dirty Devil River and Muddy Creek are among the planning area's more notable landscapes.
The judge upheld many aspects of BLM's handling of the Richfield plan, but he pronounced it a failure in regards to regulating motorized use and protecting ancient American-Indian sites and artifacts and other cultural and historical resources.
"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," Earthjustice lawyer Heidi McIntosh said.
A BLM spokeswoman said the matter is still pending and it is the agency's custom to withhold comment on pending litigation.
In court filings, the BLM claimed it met the impact-minimization standard by closing 345 miles of routes and imposing width and seasonal restrictions on another 538 miles. The judge was unswayed.
"The analysis of the minimization criteria must take place at the route specific level, not in some general sense," Kimball wrote. "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."
Meanwhile, the plan allowed 750 miles of routes across lands proposed for wilderness designation.
The environmental groups raised similar legal challenges to the travel plans in five other resource plans approved in late 2008. The six plans, which cover 11 million acres in the eastern and southern portions of the state, together authorize some 20,000 miles of routes.
Monday's ruling carries no precedent on the other cases, but environmentalists say it indicates which way the legal winds are blowing.
"The BLM should heed this as a call to action and move forward now to address these flaws in all of the plans minimizing damage from off-road vehicles and protecting natural and cultural values," said Nada Culver, senior counsel for The Wilderness Society.
Kimball's strongest rebuke fell on BLM's failure to document thousands of archaeological sites. The agency unsuccessfully argued it needed new inventories only in places where it was allowing unrestricted off-road motorized use.
Among the agency's critics is the Colorado Plateau Archaeology Alliance, which had been calling for complete inventories for years.
"The BLM has casually dismissed our arguments over the years, saying their agency protocols allow them to skip the inventory process if the route was already in existence," said the group's executive director Jerry Spangler. "Our argument was simple: How do you know if the route is causing no adverse effects if you haven't even looked to see if there are sites along those routes? You can't say there is no adverse effect if you haven't even looked."
Kimball's ruling does not fully spell out how BLM must correct the Richfield travel plan. Instead it asks the two sides to brief the court on appropriate remedies, which will be the subject of separate decision.