Off-roading advocates challenge Moab road closures in federal court

Recreators hope that a federal judge will declare the Bureau of Land Management’s road closures unlawful.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, far left, looks out over a vista as she tours the Gemini Bridges area in 2016. On Friday, off-roading advocacy groups filed a lawsuit challenging the Bureau of Land Management's closure of roads in the area in a federal district court.

Off-roading enthusiasts have taken their fight against road closures near Moab to federal court.

The BlueRibbon Coalition, Colorado Off-Road Trail Defenders and Patrick McKay, who is the vice president of Colorado Off-Road Trail Defenders, filed a lawsuit in federal district court on Friday. The suit brings the recreation advocates’ complaints about losing access to popular roads before a federal judge.

In late September, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area, which spans over 300,000 acres northwest of Moab and abuts the Green River.

Their plan closed 317 miles of routes that were previously open to motorized use, saying that vehicles posed a danger to sensitive habitats, riparian zones and cultural sites. About 800 miles of routes in the area remain open to vehicles.

“It’s impossible to place a value on generations worth of traditions, experiences, and meaningful connections to these spectacular lands,” Ben Burr, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, said in a statement. “The BLM didn’t just close 317 miles of trails, they closed 317 miles of some of the best trails, and we are prepared to do what it takes to keep them open.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Environmental advocates saw the road closures as a conservation win for public lands. But recreators argued that the closures were unnecessary and even discriminatory, since the BLM cited “known conflicts between motorized and nonmotorized users” as a reason for closing some roads. Off-roaders took this justification to mean that the BLM prioritized the experiences of nonmotorized recreators.

Off-road groups and the State of Utah then separately challenged the travel management plan by filing appeals with the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), which reviews final decisions for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

They also filed separate petitions for stay, asking the IBLA to keep the roads open until it rendered a final decision on the travel management plan.

At the end of November, the IBLA rejected that request. The appeals board said the road closures would go into effect while it made its final decision on whether or not the closures would be permanent. It wasn’t clear when the IBLA would make that final decision.

The off-roading groups are now asking a Utah federal judge to declare the travel management plan unlawful and prevent it from ever being enforced.

“We are disappointed but not surprised that the BLM’s balanced decision in the Labyrinth Canyon/Gemini Bridges travel plan has been challenged,” said Laura Peterson, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), in a statement. “Unfortunately, there are some who will not be satisfied unless every inch of Utah’s public lands are blanketed with off-road vehicle routes, regardless of the damage these vehicles cause.”

In the meantime, the recreation advocates are also asking the judge to grant an injunction that would prevent the BLM from implementing the road closures until the judge makes a final ruling on the travel management plan.

SUWA plans to intervene on behalf of the BLM in this case.

The full map of the BLM’s plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area can be found here.