Just in time for the busy Memorial Day weekend, off-roaders may return to the public lands encircling southern Utah’s Factory Butte, otherworldly badlands that have been closed to cross-country motorized use since 2006 to protect two endangered cactus species.
To the delight of motorized groups, federal officials announced they were reopening 5,300 acres around Factory Butte after concluding measures are in place that ensure off-road travel will not displace the rare plants that grow near the base of the signature formation east of Capitol Reef National Park.
“We have been monitoring and installing infrastructure over the last 10 years to protect endangered cactus species so that the [Bureau of Land Management] can enhance recreational access at Factory Butte. We have met all of the necessary criteria,” Joelle McCarthy, the BLM’s Richfield Field manager, said in a news release Thursday. “Factory Butte provides nationally renowned opportunities for motorized recreation where families and OHV enthusiasts can play.”
The news stunned the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which had petitioned for the closure and called the move “outrageous.”
“When BLM rightly closed these lands to motorized use in 2006, it recognized that off-highway vehicles are a significant threat to federally protected cactus species in the area,” said Kya Marienfeld, a Moab-based SUWA staff attorney. “We don’t believe BLM has done what it takes to make sure that damage doesn’t immediately resume. SUWA has worked for more than 20 years to protect this place, and we don’t have any intention of walking away from it now.”
The endangered plants at the center of the controversy are the Wright fishhook cactus and the Winkler pincushion cactus.
SUWA formally petitioned for an emergency closure in 2005, arguing that unregulated motorized use degraded the area’s natural values, scenic qualities and wilderness characteristics; threatened the existence of the rare cactuses; and spurred conflict between public lands users.
In response, the BLM restricted motorized travel to designated routes within the 142,000-acre Factory Butte area but based the decision solely on impacts to the cactuses. Motorized use remained available on the 2,600-acre Swing Arm City play area, abutting State Road 24, and on 200 miles of designated routes.
Still, the closure of the famous butte, located north of the Fremont River between Torrey and Hanksville, stung motorized enthusiasts, who argued they were being unfairly excluded from a favorite recreation area.
Thursday’s decision restores cross-country access to the 5,300 acres of undulating Mancos shale badlands encircling Factory Butte, but not on the butte itself. The decision also reopens the 100-acre Caineville Cove OHV play area, located next to the community of Caineville on State Road 24.
While it came out unexpectedly, the decision was a long time coming and an appropriate outcome of the decade-old dispute, according to Michael Swenson, a lobbyist active in the efforts to restore motorized access to the Factory Butte area.
“If there were ever a place for cross-county motorized travel, Factory Butte is it,” said Swenson, who heads the Utah Shared Access Alliance. “This is a very resilient, beautiful landscape that is appropriate for off-road use. This is one place that the environmental community should see as a fair place where we can coexist. There are lots of places around Factory Butte where we are are totally prohibited, and we are OK with it.”
Swenson implored fellow motorized users to comply with the rules land managers have implemented and posted on information kiosks at key spots. Doing otherwise could risk losing access.
“We do need to abide by the management plan and the rules,” he said. “I don’t condone cutting fences.”
The BLM partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop strategies for conserving the area’s rare cactuses, which are found exclusively in south-central Utah, according to Thursday’s release.
“We support lifting the restriction order,” the release quotes Larry Crist, who heads FWS’ Utah Ecological Services Field Office, “and will continue to work with the BLM to ensure recreation and conservation activities here remain compatible and sustainable.”
The release offered no specifics on how the endangered cactuses would be monitored and what measures are being taken to protect their habitat.
“We don’t believe that the conditions BLM set for itself to allow unregulated motorized use to resume have been met," SUWA legal director Steve Bloch said, “and intend to scrutinize BLM and FWS’ decisions that allowed this to happen and take whatever next steps are appropriate, including litigation.”
A message left with a BLM spokeswoman was not returned Thursday.