The Bureau of Land Management has reached a sweeping legal settlement with conservation groups that will require the agency to redo management plans designating nearly 4,300 miles of motorized vehicle routes in southern Utah to minimize potential harm to wildlife, cultural and archaeological sites.
The settlement ends more than eight years of litigation over revisions to six BLM resource management plans (RMPs) completed in the waning months of the George W. Bush administration covering more than 10 million acres of federal lands.
Conservation groups in 2008 challenged all six revisions in federal court, arguing that they left too many lands open to off-highway vehicles and oil and gas drilling, among other concerns.
The proposed agreement — hammered out by BLM, the conservation groups and OHV advocates over the last six months ‐ must still be approved by U.S. District Senior Judge Dale Kimball in Salt Lake City.
The deal, if finalized, would commit BLM over the next eight years to devise new travel management plans in the contested areas covered by the RMPs.
Parties chose "portions of the litigated area" for revised travel management plans because they have "a high probability of containing cultural and historic resources," BLM said in a statement announcing the settlement.
In these areas, BLM said, the agency will work with Native American tribes, cultural experts and the state of Utah to "conduct intensive, on-the-ground cultural surveys."
The settlement would also require BLM’s Utah office to update a 2011 air resource management strategy and a photochemical modeling analysis from 2013 "to ensure that the air quality impacts of certain oil and gas activity within the Uinta Basin are adequately studied as future development is approved," the agency said.
The settlement, announced late Friday, includes a stipulation that conservation groups that challenged the revised RMPs and associated travel management plans "agree to accept" a payment of $400,000 to cover "attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses" related to the yearslong fight.
"After more than eight years of litigation, I’m pleased to see these legal challenges put aside," BLM Utah State Director Ed Roberson said in a statement. "I look forward to focusing our attention and resources on managing Utah’s incredible public lands, unmatched opportunities for recreation, and responsible energy development."
So do the environmental plaintiffs in the case, which include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Utah Rivers Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Rocky Mountain Wild.
"This proposed settlement is good news for Utah’s iconic public lands, including the lands surrounding Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and Dinosaur National Monument," Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups, said in a statement.
"BLM must take a fresh look at where it will allow off-highway vehicles to drive," she added, "this time with an eye towards protecting the very things that make Utah’s redrock country so special — its wildness, opportunities for solitude, and irreplaceable archaeological sites."
OHV advocacy groups that are parties to the settlement include the BlueRibbon Coalition, the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition and the Trails Preservation Alliance.
The state of Utah and several counties, as well as oil and gas companies that intervened in the case on behalf of BLM, reviewed the terms of the settlement "and agreed not to oppose its approval by the federal district court," BLM said.
Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said: "We look forward to working with the OHV advocates and federal defendants to get this settlement agreement approved and in place so that BLM can turn its attention to the tasks at hand, including working with all stakeholders to minimize the impacts from off-highway vehicles on Utah’s remarkable federal public lands."
BLM had been working since 2013 to settle the lawsuit.
The deal announced last week follows a November 2013 decision by Kimball, appointed by President Clinton, that threw out revisions to one of the five challenged RMPs — the one for BLM’s Richfield Field Office (Greenwire, Nov. 5, 2013).
Kimball ruled that BLM had failed to document how its designation of OHV routes would minimize harm to soils, plants, air, wilderness character, wildlife and quiet uses such as hiking and hunting, as required in BLM’s regulations.
The judge also ruled that BLM had failed to conduct an intensive "class III" inventory of archaeological resources along most of the OHV routes, which requires site visits — a stipulation BLM has agreed to in the settlement.
In addition to failing to minimize the impacts of OHVs and fully account for historical resources, BLM’s Richfield plan failed to consider wild and scenic river protections for intermittent streams and excluded special protections for the Henry Mountains "based on political concerns" rather than the standards of federal law, Kimball said.
The 2.1-million-acre Richfield plan covers lands between Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It includes popular backcountry sites, including the Dirty Devil canyon complex, a hideout for Butch Cassidy, and the Henry Mountains and Factory Butte.
BLM has acknowledged that more than half the lands are "wilderness quality."
Although the Richfield plan was one of six RMPs that conservation groups challenged in the lawsuit, Kimball ruled on that one first.
The environmental plaintiffs said at the time of Kimball’s ruling that they felt certain that BLM’s five other revised plans suffered from the same deficiencies and eventually would also be struck down.