New off-road closures near Moab have environmental protection advocates cheering and recreators feeling slighted.
On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management released a new plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area. The update closed 317.2 miles of routes that were previously open to off-highway and passenger vehicles though over 800 miles of routes are still accessible for motorized use.
The Labyrinth Rims Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area spans over 300,000 acres in Grand County. Hell Roaring Canyon and Ten Mile Canyon — both home to popular OHV trails — lie within its boundaries, as well as a 40-mile flatwater stretch of the Green River.
The BLM cited several reasons for closing roads previously open to motorists. These include reducing impacts on wildlife like bighorn sheep and golden eagles, minimizing damage to watersheds and vegetation and preserving riparian habitats. The agency also closed roads to protect cultural sites.
“There are still many places within this area, and within Grand County, where off-road vehicles are allowed,” Laura Peterson, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “This does not cut off access. It does not exclude people. This is just a more balanced way of managing motorized recreation.”
Environmental advocates especially lauded road closures along the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon.
The western side of Labyrinth Canyon was designated as wilderness in 2019 and the river corridor itself is protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The eastern side of the canyon is managed by the BLM and is open to multiple uses, but Thursday’s plan closed roads along the river and roads that lead to overlooks.
“This [plan] completes that protection,” said Peterson.
The BLM preserved roads that have seen heavy and frequent use, like the Hell Roaring Rim Jeep Safari route. But the agency closed roads in Ten Mile Wash, a popular and scenic area for motorists, stating that “the impacts to cultural, wildlife, and riparian resources within the wash outweigh the recreation experience, which can be obtained elsewhere.”
Ben Burr, president of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a recreation group, told The Tribune that the road closures were “largely unnecessary,” especially since tensions between river recreators and motorists also contributed to road closures along the east bank of the Green River. The BLM cited “known conflicts between motorized and non-motorized users” as a reason for closing a road within Ten Mile Wash.
“If we’re going to have a situation where one user group can come out and say, ‘oh, there’s conflict here because we don’t like these people, and we don’t want them here,’ and then the BLM actually just closes [areas] to the other group — where does that end?” Burr said, referring to river-runners who dislike hearing noise from motorized vehicles.
OHV users argue that with so much of the Moab area protected from motorized use — like nearby national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments — their available recreation areas are that much more precious. With these closures, they claim, the BLM has forgone its multiple-use mandate.
The BLM’s new plan for the area doesn’t only affect off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, Burr said. Recreators interested in photography, climbing, camping and other activities may also lose access due to road closures.
“There was a decent amount of route density in the Labyrinth Rims and Gemini Bridges area to where there was a good balance of all recreation uses,” Burr said. “Now, they’ve tilted in favor of hurting a lot of recreation users.”
The Blue Ribbon Coalition and other entities that oppose the plan for the Labyrinth Rims Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area can legally challenge it.
This travel management plan is the third of 11 that the BLM must revise and release as part of a 2017 settlement reached with conservation and off-road vehicle advocacy groups.