State of Utah, motorized recreators challenge BLM road closures near Moab

The two appeals now head the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which has 45 days to decide whether the Bureau of Land Management’s road closures in the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area will go into effect.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, tours the Gemini Bridges area in 2016. On Monday, the State of Utah and motorized recreation groups challenged the Bureau of Land Management's plan for the area, which closed roads to motorized use.

The State of Utah, motorized vehicle users, conservation groups and the Bureau of Land Management disagree on the best way to balance public land uses in Labyrinth Canyon near Moab.

On Monday, the state of Utah and motorized recreation groups separately challenged the BLM’s plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area, which covers 300,000 acres in Grand County and butts up against the Green River.

The BLM’s plan, released in late September, closed 317.2 miles of routes in the area to off-highway and passenger vehicles. The agency said it closed roads to reduce impacts on wildlife habitats, minimize damage to watersheds and preserve cultural sites. There are over 800 miles of routes in the area still open to motorized vehicles.

In its plan, the BLM cited “known conflicts between motorized and non-motorized users” as a reason for some road closures.

“We really see the decision as long overdue to protect the Labyrinth Canyon corridor so we have some balanced approach to how public lands are managed in the greater Moab area,” Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “There’s a real dominance of motorized vehicle recreation, and this plan starts to create more balance in how public lands are managed.”

The State of Utah filed a notice of appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), as well as a petition for a stay of the road closures while the board reviews the appeal. The IBLA reviews final decisions for the Department of the Interior.

“Utah’s iconic Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges region, treasured for its diverse motorized and non-motorized recreational opportunities, faces trail closures due to the Bureau of Land Management’s recent decision,” read a Facebook post by the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office. “Today, the Utah Attorney General’s Office has stepped in, petitioning for a halt on this plan. Gov. Spencer Cox joins this effort and is urging for collaboration. Let’s advocate for a balance that respects both recreation and public access.”

Redge Johnson, executive director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, called the BLM’s plan “egregious over reach” in a Facebook post.

The Utah Office of the Attorney General did not immediately respond to The Tribune’s request for comment.

Separately, the motorized recreation groups BlueRibbon Coalition and Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders joined Patrick McKay, the vice president of Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders, to file a notice of administrative appeal and a motion to stay the road closures.

“[The BLM’s plan] definitely is hurting a lot of people,” Ben Burr, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, told The Tribune. “This is a highly valued area for people for generations of all user groups.”

“There’s a lot of appetite for all groups that care about this area to go and help manage it and mitigate the impacts, and this plan really shut off a lot of that,” Burr continued.

The Interior Board of Land Appeals has 45 days to make a final decision on the appeals. The road closures outlined in the BLM’s plan will not go into effect until the board makes a decision.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Why does the State of Utah oppose these road closures?

The State’s appeal against the BLM’s plan hinges on “R.S. 2477,” a law that allowed counties to own roads built on public land. Utah argues that the BLM “ignored” its requests to keep R.S. 2477 roads open, according to its petition for stay.

The State of Utah says that the BLM closed roads that are necessary to access two parcels of state trust lands in Grand County. Those parcels are used to generate revenue for the state’s public schools and state mental hospital.

“This will immediately limit access by current lessees of the parcels and will undoubtedly impact [Utah Trust Lands Administration]’s ability to successfully lease these parcels in the future, thereby negatively impacting [Utah Trust Lands Administration]’s trust funds held for the benefit of the public schools and other beneficiaries,” reads the petition for stay.

The BLM closed 114 miles of roads that were claimed as R.S. 2477 roads. The State of Utah and Grand County sued the Department of the Interior and the BLM in 2012 to settle the title to these roads under R.S. 2477.

The State of Utah and Grand County are still litigating their claims to these roads in federal court.

How are motorized recreators challenging the BLM’s plan?

According to their notice of appeal, the BlueRibbon Coalition and Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders allege that the BLM’s road closures violate the National Environmental Policy Act, the Dingell Act, and the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution. They also argue that the road closures are “arbitrary and capricious.”

First, the appellants argue that the BLM failed to take a sufficiently “hard look” at the impacts of the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Plan as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“A lot of the community made extensive comments and it seems like a lot of that information was ignored in the plan,” Burr said.

The BLM evaluated different alternatives and incorporated public comments into the finalized plan released in September.

They also allege that the plan violates the Dingell Act, which designated Labyrinth Canyon as a Wilderness Area in 2019. The legislation stated that there should not be “buffer zones” around wilderness areas. The appellants argue that the BLM’s plan for Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area on the east side of Labyrinth Canyon constitutes a buffer zone.

The BLM’s process for creating management plans is completely separate from Congress’ provisions in the Dingell Act.

“We’ve certainly made a diligent effort to make a strong case and we would like to see the IBLA reverse this decision and recognize the merits of our appeal,” Burr said. “If they don’t, then we will go through the appeals system or the rest of the federal court system and do what we can to make sure that this plan receives all the legal scrutiny that it deserves.”

A map of the new travel management plan can be found here.