For all the debate surrounding the future of how Little Cottonwood Canyon will be managed to accommodate the extraordinary number of people who want to recreate in the canyon, at least the public debate starts from asking the right question: How do we maintain access for everyone to one of Utah’s world-class recreation destinations? At least we’re not starting from the point of suggesting that we should close 30% of the ski runs in Snowbird and Alta.
Closing world-class recreation assets is exactly what the Bureau of Land Management has decided to do with their Labyrinth Rims and Gemini Bridges plan that will eliminate 28% of the area’s existing roads and off-road routes. This decision came after hundreds of miles were already closed near Moab in 2008.
These lands include everything West of Highway 191 from Green River to Moab, and the closures include popular trails such as Hey Joe Canyon, Ten Mile Wash, and Hell Roaring Canyon. Hundreds of high value dispersed campsites will be closed that are currently enjoyed by users of RVs, campers, overlanders, and Subaru Outbacks with “Protect Wild Utah” stickers in their windows. Many scenic viewpoints with existing marked and delineated trails will no longer be able to be viewed by those with disabilities.
While those who support this radical plan claim that the closures are targeted to the convenient scapegoat of OHVs, the reality is that closing 317 miles of routes in this area will impact all the users who visit this area. Despite receiving substantial traffic from all forms of recreation – including motorized and non-motorized – the area is so vast that just about anyone can find a recreation experience that suits their preference. If you want silence and solitude, you can find it. If you want an organized event with hundreds of mountain bikers, this is a world-class destination. If you want to test the capabilities of a new custom off-road build, this area is the international proving ground. Now, with fewer routes open, users and impacts will be concentrated into a smaller area, and these impacts will likely result in future closures.
Despite abundant use, this area still boasts some of the healthiest bighorn sheep herds in the state. It’s easier to find acres as far as the eye can see of virgin cryptobiotic soil than it is to find permanent human impact that won’t be erased by the next monsoon desert storm. The route network only impacts ~2,000 acres out of 303,000 acres of land, and the BLM is proving that it can actively manage these routes. This level of disturbance amounts to less than 1% of the total area.
Those calling for balance of motorized access with non-motorized access should take comfort in the fact that over 99.3% of the area is left untouched for wildlife, vegetation, soils, and those who prefer non-motorized recreation. It is more than fair that those who can only access public lands through motorized recreation are allowed to access .7% of their public lands in the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges area. In fact, a strong case can be made that allowing motorized access to .7% of the area isn’t enough.
Wilderness groups are celebrating the decision on the basis that those who want to paddle the Green River can have a backcountry experience where they don’t encounter other users. All recreation users should have access to this spectacular area, and for one user group to assert that their experience is more valuable than anyone else’s is elitist, exclusive, and wrong. Public lands belong to all Americans – not just flatwater paddlers.
Surprisingly, on the day I recently spent in the Mineral Bottom area that provides access to river-based recreation users, the only OHV I saw — or heard — in the area was my own. The heaviest motorized traffic was the fleet of trucks and trailers with rafts that make their way up and down the Mineral Bottom switchbacks. The parking lot at Mineral Bottom was full of motorized vehicles from that area’s largest motorized recreation group: paddlers. As I crawled the road along the river to explore the now-closed Hell Roaring Canyon during Moab’s peak tourist season, I didn’t pass a single raft, kayak, or OHV. It is absurd to suggest we should close this area to everyone, so the occasional paddler doesn’t have to hear the noise of an engine for 30 seconds as it passes by.
Ben Burr is the executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving recreation access for all users. We will be doing everything we can to challenge this decision, so that all public land users can enjoy the benefits of outdoor recreation on public lands.