BLM releases new high-profile travel plan for Labyrinth Canyon area.
On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management released a new travel management plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges area near Moab, Utah. The plan, which covers more than 300,000 acres, protects wildlife habitat and cultural resources while still permitting motorized recreation on over 800 miles of dirt routes.
Environmental groups, river runners, local officials and off-road vehicle (ORV) users have been anxiously awaiting the release of the plan, which is considered “high-profile” owing to the area’s proximity to world-renowned recreation destinations like Labyrinth Canyon, a popular 49-mile flatwater segment of the Green River that is federally protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Recreation management has long been a top concern for the area: Though Moab has only 5,300 year-round residents, over 2 million people visit annually.
“Visitors will finally be able to experience stunning Labyrinth Canyon without the noise, dust, and damage that accompanies motorized recreation,” said Laura Peterson, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), in a press release. “The Labyrinth Canyon plan represents an important step forward to guide the management of Utah’s public lands and reduce the impacts of off-road vehicle routes in this area.”
Not everyone is pleased with the plan, however; motorized recreation groups, such as the BlueRibbon Coalition, believe that it goes too far. Previously, ORV users could access more than 1,200 miles of routes; now, they have access to just over 800 miles. Coalition Director Ben Burr said, “It’s a terrible plan that closes way too many of the routes in that area, and it’s going to hurt the millions of recreation users who go there for all forms of outdoor recreation.” The BlueRibbon Coalition intends to challenge the plan, appealing to the Interior Board of Land Appeals and requesting a stay on its implementation until the legal questions are settled.
A view of Labyrinth Canyon from above. While the west side of the canyon has been designated as wilderness by Congress, the east side has been open to over a 1,000 miles of motorized vehicle routes. BLM’s new plan closes routes near the canyon rims and sensitive riparian areas.
The response from local elected officials appeared to be more positive. “Throughout the planning process we asked the BLM for a balanced plan which provides ample opportunities for both motorized and non-motorized recreation, while protecting riparian areas and other wildlife habitat,” said Jacques Hadler, chair of the Grand County Commission, in a statement emailed to High Country News. Hadler said that the new travel plan does a strong job of finding this balance, which is all the more important as visitation to the Moab area increases.
The BLM has to complete 11 new travel management plans covering more than 6 million acres in eastern and southern Utah by 2025; the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges plan is only the third of these. In 2008, at the end of the George W. Bush administration, the agency released a set of plans that SUWA and other environmental organizations challenged in court. A district court determined that the BLM had failed to protect cultural and natural resources in accordance with its duties under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. In 2017, the BLM reached a settlement with SUWA and other environmental organizations that required it to revise the plans.
Peterson told High Country News that the 2008 plan for the Labyrinth Canyon area had so many motorized vehicle routes that it looked as if the BLM had thrown “spaghetti at the map.” SUWA found that 100% of the lands within the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges travel management area were within two miles of an off-road vehicle route, while 94% were within a half-mile of one. “We’ve been really focused on that Labyrinth Canyon corridor, as well as the side canyons, because they are so unique and incredible and have had decades of damage from off-road vehicle use,” said Peterson.
The plan limits or prohibits vehicle travel in riparian areas at the buffer zone between river and dryland — areas that are critical habitat for desert bighorn sheep, raptors and other wildlife. It also protects culturally important resources, such as Indigenous rock art.
Georgie Pongyesva, a member of the Hopi Tribe and current tribal liaison for Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, told High Country News that the need to protect culturally important places in the Labyrinth Canyon area is connected to similar efforts across the Colorado Plateau. “We don’t see borders, and these cultural sites are connected to the greater landscape and to the natural world that surrounds them,” she said.
The BLM also considered diverse recreation users’ interests in its decision to close off some ORV routes in side canyons and along the canyon rim.
Boaters enjoy the 49-mile stretch of the Green River through Labyrinth Canyon, which provides a multi-day flatwater experience suitable for all skill levels.
River runners have been especially concerned about ORV travel, citing its impact on the ecosystem as well as on their own recreation experience. John Weisheit, a longtime river runner and director of Living Rivers, estimates he has been down Labyrinth Canyon over 100 times. In 35 years of running this scenic stretch of the Green River, he said he has noticed a dramatic increase in noise and dust pollution from off-road vehicles. River runners have to follow regulations that protect the ecosystem, such as proper waste management, Weisheit said, and he believes motorized vehicle users should face the same level of scrutiny. ORV users may resent such regulations as an infringement on their rights, Weisheit said, but river runners see it differently: “We look at it as maximizing enjoying the peace and quiet.”
In Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet, which was recently excerpted in High Country News, Ben Goldfarb documented how noise pollution from vehicles can impact humans as well as wildlife. “Road noise,” he said, “both degrades our bodies and overwhelms the sounds on which we, like songbirds, depend.”
A view of the expansive Labyrinth Rims and Gemini Bridges area, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management for a variety of uses.
Brooke Larsen is the Virginia Spencer Davis Fellow for HCN, covering rural communities, agriculture and conservation. She reports from Salt Lake City, Utah. Email her at email@example.com or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. Follow her on Instagram @jbrookelarsen or Twitter @JBrookeLarsen.