Ruling closes popular off-highway roads near Moab — for now

An administrative appeals board is still deciding whether or not those closures will be permanent.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stands alone and looks out over a vista as she tours the Gemini Bridges area in 2016. This week, an appeals board rejected requests made by the State of Utah and recreation advocacy groups to keep roads open to motorized use in this area while the board comes to its final decision on whether the road closures will be permanent.

Off-roading enthusiasts suffered a setback this week in their battle to keep roads open to motorized vehicle use near Moab, but they hope that it’s only temporary.

The Bureau of Land Management released the travel management plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area in late September, which included the closure of 317 miles of routes that were previously open to off-highway and passenger vehicles.

The State of Utah and recreation advocacy groups separately appealed the BLM’s plan in late October. The appellants asked the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which issues final decisions for the Department of the Interior, to keep the roads open until the board made their final decision on whether or not the BLM’s plan would go into effect permanently.

On Wednesday, the Interior Board of Land Appeals rejected that request.

The BLM will now close the roads identified in their plan until the board is finished reviewing the appeals. It is not known when the Interior Board of Land Appeals will make its final decision.

“We’re disappointed, but we’re still going all the way through with the appeal,” said Ben Burr, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a nonprofit recreation advocacy group that challenged the BLM’s plan.

“This is by no means a final decision for us. It’s just something we were trying to put in place to keep things more favorable to our members while we went through the appeal,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Burr said that he is concerned that the quality of the temporarily closed roads will decline in the time that the board takes to review the appeal.

The BlueRibbon Coalition posted a statement to Facebook encouraging off-road enthusiasts to refrain from using the closed roads. There are still over 800 miles of routes accessible for motorized use in the area.

“There’s a lot of talk about cutting off access, and that’s just not accurate,” Laura Peterson, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told The Tribune. The environmental nonprofit has intervened on behalf of the BLM in the appeals.

In its decision to reject the appellants’ request to keep the roads open, the Interior Board of Land Appeals said that the State of Utah, the BlueRibbon Coalition and other off-road vehicle groups “failed to show that immediate and irreparable harm will occur while their appeals are pending.”

Covering 300,000 acres in Grand County, the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area is home to Hell Roaring Canyon, Ten Mile Canyon and a 40-mile flat-water stretch of the Green River.

The BLM closed roads in the area for multiple reasons, including to reduce damage to riparian zones, protect wildlife habitats and preserve cultural sites. The agency also cited “known conflicts between motorized and non-motorized users” as a reason for some road closures,” referring to complaints made about vehicle noise by river recreators.

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