Roads closed by feds near Moab will stay closed — for now

A federal judge on Wednesday rejected another request from off-roading advocates to keep roads near Moab open.

(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, Thursday, July 14, 2016. A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that roads recently closed by the Bureau of Land Management in the area will remain closed for the time being.

Off-roading enthusiasts suffered another setback in their fight to keep roads near Moab open to motorized vehicle use on Wednesday when a federal judge decided that roads recently closed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) should remain that way.

“We are disappointed in the decision released today,” said Ben Burr, executive director of the off-road recreation advocacy nonprofit BlueRibbon Coalition, in a statement. “Our motion for preliminary injunction was a first step to keep these beloved trails open, and we will continue to press forward with our legal challenge to the decision to close these roads.”

The BLM, housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area northwest of Moab. The area spans over 300,000 acres in Grand County and abuts a 40-mile stretch of the Green River.

In Sept. 2023, the BLM released its final travel management plan for the area, which designates how visitors can recreate on the land.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In their plan, the BLM closed 317 miles of routes that were previously open to motorized use. These closures rankled off-roading enthusiasts, who claimed that the federal government blocked off some of the most popular off-roading routes in the area.

The BLM said that the road closures were necessary to protect riparian habitats, preserve cultural resources and minimize damage to watersheds and vegetation. The agency also cited “known conflicts between motorized and nonmotorized users,” like hikers and river runners, as a justification for some road closures.

Environmentalists described the BLM’s plan as balanced and thorough, while motorists felt slighted. State leaders also chimed in, calling the road closures a prime example of federal overreach.

The State of Utah and motorized recreation groups separately appealed the BLM’s plan to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which makes final decisions for the Department of the Interior, in October.

The state argued that the road closures violated R.S. 2477, a 19th-century law that enabled counties to build roads on public lands. Off-roading advocates said that the BLM’s road closures were “arbitrary and capricious” and that the agency ignored public input.

The Interior Board of Land Appeals has not yet issued a final ruling on the appeals. The state and recreation groups asked the board to prevent the road closures from going into effect until it made its final decision, but the board rejected that request. The road closures remained in effect.

Off-roading groups then took their fight to federal court, asking that the judge declare the BLM’s travel management plan unlawful to prevent it from ever being enforced. They also asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction that would prevent the road closures from going into effect until he made his final decision.

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball on Wednesday denied that preliminary injunction, meaning that the roads will stay closed while the federal litigation is pending.

“We’re pleased the Court has rejected this effort by motorized groups to prevent BLM from implementing the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges travel management plan,” Steve Bloch, legal director for the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which has intervened on behalf of the BLM in this case, said in a statement. “BLM’s plan takes a balanced approach to managing recreation in this popular area; one that protects the stunning Labyrinth Canyon river corridor and side canyons while leaving thousands of miles of dirt roads and trails open to motorized use. SUWA is confident that the plan will withstand additional scrutiny and we will continue to work to defend BLM’s decision.”

On the last day of the 2024 session, the Utah Legislature passed HB471: Public Lands Possession Amendments, sponsored by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who is running for governor this year. The legislation says that Utah and its counties can “disregard any attempted closure of a road without due process.”

Lyman told The Tribune that the road closures near Moab were on his mind when he was drafting this legislation.