Feds propose opening Utah’s San Rafael Desert to more motorized use

(Courtesy photo by Ray Bloxham, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) Under a draft travel plan for Utah's San Rafael Desert, released in December by the Bureau of Land Management, motorized access could be allowed on "cherry stemmed" corridors inside newly designated wilderness at Labyrinth Canyon along the Green River.

Depending on whom you ask, motorized recreation either threatens to overwhelm Utah’s public lands or has been choked off by bureaucrats and environmentalists bent on keeping vast reaches off-limits to those who can’t walk long distances.

The emerging dispute over a revised travel plan for Emery County’s San Rafael Desert, south of Green River, illustrates this great divide that the Bureau of Land Management must navigate in determining where off-road vehicles can roam.

The land agency recently released a draft plan detailing four wide-ranging alternatives for the 377,609-acre area east of the more famous San Rafael Swell and includes recently designated wilderness in Labyrinth Canyon. One proposes a dramatic expansion of routes open to at least some motorized use, from 309 to 890 miles, which the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and its allies contend would turn a place of sublime natural beauty into a motorized playground and invite conflicts.

“BLM’s draft travel plan is shortsighted and wholly fails to account for the diverse array of public land resources and user groups,” said Laura Peterson, staff attorney with SUWA. "BLM’s plan would open popular hiking trails to motorized vehicle use. It would designate routes that will bisect wildlife habitat, fragment wildlands and damage important cultural sites.”

For Rainer Huck, however, the draft plan hardly goes far enough toward restoring what he asserts all Americans are entitled to: the freedom they once enjoyed to motor almost anywhere on Utah’s federal lands available for multiple use, which make up nearly half the state.

The public has until Jan. 13 to submit comments, which the BLM will use to select a final plan. Land managers inventoried 1,203 miles of existing routes and evaluated them for full motorized use, limited use and closure, according to BLM planner Ann Glubczynski.

“All these plans are a sham,” said Huck, a former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate and stalwart advocate for motorized access. “The BLM had no legal authority to close any of those routes” as long as they were in use in 1976, when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Along with another motorized user, Salt Lake City resident John Anderson, Huck is suing the BLM in U.S. District Court, seeking to upend the Emery County lands bill, which Congress passed in 2019 as part of an omnibus public lands package named in honor of the late Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

The pro se suit targets some of the land set aside as wilderness in the Dingell act, but it also goes far beyond Emery County, alleging that the BLM has illegally closed motorized access across Utah in collusion with environmental groups the plaintiffs deride as “Earth-religionists" and “radicals.” These groups’ alleged goal is to exclude vast majority of Americans, particularly the aged and disabled, from enjoying Utah’s remote scenic treasures.

What Huck calls “flagitious” restrictions on motorized access, SUWA and its allies contend merely follow federal laws designed to safeguard irreplaceable natural values and balance uses.

The BLM has authorized thousands of miles of motorized routes in Utah, including many into scenic and sensitive areas despite concerns for potential impacts on archaeological sites, rare plant communities, delicate soils, wildlife and other recreational users.

As the administration of President George W. Bush was coming to an end in 2008, the BLM adopted six resource management plans that prioritized energy development and motorized access on 6 million acres in southern and eastern Utah. SUWA successfully challenged the travel-planning components of these plans in court and won concessions from the BLM. The settlement agreement obligates the agency to reconsider its plans for 13 areas.

The San Rafael Desert is the first revised plan to be released, and the draft’s most ATV-friendly alternative, in SUWA’s eyes, could not be worse.

“Rather than capitalize on an opportunity to develop a reasonable, manageable and forward-thinking travel plan that ensures public access while preserving the backcountry and minimizing damage, BLM’s plan does exactly the opposite," Peterson said. “It proposes to designate any cow path, wash bottom and line on a map as open to off-road vehicles.”

According to SUWA’s analysis, more than 300 miles of these proposed routes are either reclaimed or do not exist on the ground. The group argues designating so many motorized routes is not only unnecessary but also will create a management nightmare for the BLM, which is strapped for the resources and personnel needed to ensure drivers adhere to designated routes.

"It certainly does not minimize impacts to soils, watersheds, riparian, cultural resources. Instead it designates routes where none existed on the ground," Peterson said. "How are people supposed to stay on a route that isn't even there?"

BLM officials disputed Peterson's characterization of the plan.

“That’s not accurate,” spokesman Jonathan Moor said. “We are examining what they put out to see if we can clarify any inaccuracies they have written on their website.”

SUWA’s proposal for a travel plan, which would authorize 333 miles of routes, is largely reflected in the BLM’s “conservation” plan, identified as Alternative B in the plan’s environmental review.

“We do not have a preferred alternative,” Glubczynski said. “We want to get comments from the public and consider them all. We will pass that on to the decision-maker.”

Huck rejects environmentalists’ assertions that motorized recreation damages the land.

“Impacts are just used as a pretext to limit access,” said Huck, an avid motorcycle rider who logs 10,000 miles a year on Utah’s back roads. “Any human activity is going to have an impact, including hiking.”

At 73 and suffering from asthma, Huck said he can’t walk far. He argues the BLM’s closures “discriminate” against the disabled, like him, who rely on motorized vehicles if they want to explore public land. Back in 1976, motorized users enjoyed legal access to nearly all the public land in Utah, but that access has since dwindled to less than 5%, Huck said.

“The closures apply to only one group of people, motorized travelers. They never apply to people who travel by foot, horseback and mountain bike. They are violating constitutional and statutory protections for handicapped people,” he said. “I’m so excited to get my day in court. I think I’m going to win, and it will change the management paradigm.”

In the meantime, however, the BLM believes the law requires it to plan where and how motorized folks such as Huck can and, more important, cannot drive on public lands.

Whatever the outcome, not everyone will be happy. That divide persists.