Opinion: The BLM was right to close vehicle trails around Labyrinth Canyon

This is a change, for sure, but one for the better, writes John Weisheit.

I grew up in a family that centered recreation activities around the Colorado River, its tributaries and its human-made reservoirs. Our water activities were diverse and oftentimes experimental, as new facilities and technologies became available. I remember learning how to waterski on Lake Havasu at the marina facilities of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe.

The times were changing quickly, though. The Wilderness Act would be enacted by Congress in 1964, with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act following in 1968. While Lake Powell was filling for the first time, and I was learning how to navigate power boats, Congress was passing laws to protect our shared commons, which include air, water, public lands and endangered species.

I moved to Moab when I was in my mid-30s to be a full-time river and land guide working above the reservoirs that have altered the ecosystems of the Colorado River and its tributaries so abruptly. Casual visitors have always reminded me how very fortunate I was to even have public lands to visit and how very important it is to protect them for future generations.

Reflecting back, the 43 seasons I’ve spent floating rivers has given me time to think. To realize what makes a place special. To get to know the twists and turns of a wild landscape. To bring generations of families to a place. To watch stress and anxiety melt away, replaced by the calm and serenity that only a river trip can bring.

It took about 30 years for me to fully appreciate how insightful and precautionary it was for the federal government to pass laws that safeguard our public lands. If Congress had authorized the Bureau of Reclamation to build the proposed main stem reservoir on the Colorado River below the Confluence of the Green River (in present-day Canyonlands National Park), we would no longer have this place I hold dear: Labyrinth Canyon.

For years, I’ve worked with anyone who’s willing to protect this special place: Fellow river runners, scientists, elected officials and government agencies. I was thrilled when 49 miles of the Green River were designated a Scenic River under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 2019. When I heard the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was working on a motorized travel management plan for the Labyrinth Canyon and Gemini Bridges area — a plan that would guide motorized use along the river — I knew the agency had an opportunity to make a positive change for Labyrinth.

I was excited when the agency released its final travel plan in late September: the new plan gets it right! While it closes some motorized routes to protect riparian habitat, cultural sites and the experiences of other recreationists (the BLM is the multiple-use agency, after all), over 800 miles in the planning area remain open. And most importantly, in my opinion, Labyrinth Canyon is protected. Motorized recreationists still have plenty of places to explore, and access to the river remains intact. This is a change, for sure, but one for the better — one that, given some perspective, we will certainly view in a positive light well into the future.

I know the important role that public advocacy plays in making these hard decisions, and I am satisfied that this decision — after asking for and receiving public input — was properly reached by the BLM. Should the conditions of the landscape not improve in the next decade, then we will need to be proactive and reexamine the process yet again.

A bold decision was made 57 years ago to not build another reservoir on the Colorado — a decision that saved the riparian ecosystems of Labyrinth Canyon for another few decades. Last month, the BLM’s Moab office made another decision that will benefit Labyrinth Canyon well into the future — a decision that is consistent with the history of this region; a decision that recognizes human impacts to our precious natural resources are important and will continue to bring lasting benefits for locals and to all visitors both national and international.

John Weisheit

John Weisheit is the conservation director of Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeeper.

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