Mostly Bad Marks for the BLM

On December 1, we released our new “2010 Report Card:  Assessing Utah BLM’s Management of Off-Road Vehicles.”  Off-road vehicle (ORV) use on Utah’s public lands is an enormously controversial public lands issue, and ORV-caused damage – erosion, water pollution, noise, air-borne dust, crushed and looted archaeological sites -- continues to increase.  Based upon BLM’s failure to comply with federal law and protect natural and historical resources from ORVs, we had to give BLM failing and very low grades for most categories.  Those of us who love Utah’s wild country are fed up with the damage, and it’s way past time for BLM to fix this mess.

A growing body of scientific research conducted by federal agencies, universities, and independent scientists that conclude that ORV use is damaging to a variety of natural resources and Utah’s wealth of archaeological resources.  (You don’t really need scientists to tell you this – many of us have seen the damage first hand on one of our trips to the desert.)

In particular, research demonstrates that ORV use near archaeological structures, rock art and other artifacts increases the risk of vandalism and looting of Utah’s irreplaceable archaeological treasures.

Scientific research also shows that ORV use in Utah’s streams and waterways is especially harmful.  These areas (referred to as “riparian areas” by the BLM) make up just 1 % of Utah’s public lands, yet support over 80% of wildlife species.  ORV use increases sedimentation, destroys healthy stream banks and vegetation, increases water temperatures and lowers the water table, threatening fish and other stream life,  plants and valuable wildlife habitat. 

In addition, federal agency research concludes that ORV use exacerbates the effects of climate change on the Colorado Plateau by eroding soils and contributing to the large dust storms that blanket Colorado’s mountains with dust resulting in earlier and faster snow melt, degrading water supplies, and spreading invasive weeds that increase the risk of wildfires.

Our 2010 Report Card assesses BLM’s ORV plans, completed in 2008, for 11 million acres in eastern and southern Utah.  These plans put an end to the free-for-all ORV management of the past decades – a step in the right direction. 

However, rather than comply with federal law that requires BLM to protect the air, water, archaeological sites, scenic values, and ecology of our public lands, and to “minimize” the impacts of ORV use on these resources and the landscape, the agency designated a dense network of 20,000 miles of ORV routes – enough to drive between New York City and Los Angeles seven times! 

And, unfortunately, these ORV plans allow ORV use in many of the most sensitive areas, including in streambeds and wildlife habitat, across archaeological sites, and in roadless areas.  The 2008 plans close only 15% of the lands to ORV use, even though BLM’s own survey data shows that less than 10% of visitors to public lands use ORVs while 90% of visitors enjoy recreational pursuits other than ORVing on Utah’s public lands

BLM has the authority to fix these plans, and we propose a solution that would provide immediate protection for the most sensitive areas and resources:  BLM should close routes located in scarce desert streams, in areas known to have dense concentrations of archaeological sites, and in roadless areas.  This would entail closing around 3,000 miles of route, leaving 17,000 miles of route available for ORV use.  This easy solution would help restore a sense of balance to the public lands, and protect a few places from the long-term damages caused by ORV use.

Please see the Utah Wilderness News for press coverage on the ORV Report Card release.

Liz Thomas
SUWA Field Attorney


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