From several thousand feet above, the winding network of roads and trails that twist and divide sections of Gemini Bridges and Labyrinth Canyon in southern Utah are hard to miss. Roughly 98% of the area is within a half mile of a designated road.
But by Sept. 30, the fate of those roads, and the recreation dynamics of the area in general, will be decided by the Bureau of Land Management, which is gearing up to release a new travel plan for the Gemini Bridges-Labyrinth Canyon area.
There are several options — one would essentially manage the land the same way it’s been managed for decades, another would close hundreds of miles of roads.
On Friday, Deseret News journalists boarded a small, six-seater Cessna to survey the region and its network of roads. The flight was hosted by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, and Ecoflight, a nonprofit that uses small aircraft to advocate for conservation.
Taking off from the small Canyonlands Regional Airport outside of Moab, the plane flew West over Hell Roaring Canyon, a normally dry wash that earns its name during rainstorms when it sends a torrent of water into the Labyrinth Canyon of the Green River.
The six-seater Cessna plane continued west as the pilot, Bruce Gordon, steered over the Mineral Bottom boat launch before turning north, hugging the border of the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness Area in Emery County. The plane banked slightly to the right, peering down into the red maze of sandstone canyons and the flat water of the Green River.
Sitting in the passenger seat, Neal Clark, SUWA wildlands director, pointed to Bowknot Bend, a peculiar meander of the Green River separated by a small mesa that, from the sky, looks like it would crumble during the spring runoff. “It’s one of the more iconic formations” in Labyrinth Canyon, Clark said.
Near Bowknot Bend, a small road emerged from the red rock, veering north and cutting through the bright green riparian buffer of the Green River. An off-roading route called “Hey Joe,” it’s one of hundreds that the Bureau of Land Management could close to the public in the coming days.
Environmental advocates say the potential closures would strike a balance between motorized and nonmotorized users while protecting cultural and natural resources. Off-roading enthusiasts say more restrictions is government overreach, could threaten Moab’s economy and will unnecessarily bar users from accessing the land.
The process started in 2008 after SUWA sued the Bureau of Land Management over its resource management at the Moab, Vernal, Price, Kanab, Monticello and Richfield field offices.
SUWA argued that some of the plans didn’t look after the cultural resources in accordance with federal law — it won, starting a decade’s worth of travel plan revisions that are starting to take shape.
The BLM eventually rolled out four alternatives:
– Alternative A would essentially keep the current management in place, with 1,056 miles of designated roads and about 70 miles of “limited” roads for smaller vehicles.
– Alternative B would keep 606 miles open, limit 84 miles and close 437 miles of road, the most restrictive plan of the four. According to the BLM, it “prioritizes protection of wildlife habitat, natural and cultural resources, ecosystems, and landscapes.”
– Alternative C would keep 838 miles open, limit 121 miles and close 167 miles, which the BLM says represents a “balanced approach to OHV access resource protection.”
– Alternative D would keep 974 miles open, limit 100 miles and close 52 miles.
SUWA and the Grand County Commission want Alternative B — groups like the BlueRibbon Coalition, a motorized recreation advocacy group, and Utah Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, whose legislative district encompasses the area, want Alternative A.
Each alternative is subject to change depending on public comment, and some of the routes slated to be closed — including the popular Hey Joe, Gold Bar Rim and Ten Mile Canyon roads — could be left open. It’s also possible that either SUWA or the BlueRibbon Coalition will sue if the decision doesn’t align with their interests.