Under a newly-released travel management plan, nearly a third of off-highway vehicle (OHV) routes in the swath of Grand County near Labyrinth Canyon will be closed, per the Bureau of Land Management’s Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Plan, which was released Sept. 28.
That the BLM’s decision sticks, however, is far from assured; motorized recreation advocacy groups have vowed to fight the plan, setting up another scuffle in a lengthy court-mandated travel management plan process that has already raised hackles in Moab.
The plan calls for closing 317 miles of motorized routes, 28% of the area’s total inventoried 1,128 miles. In its decision, the BLM didn’t choose any of the four alternatives released in last year’s draft plan. Instead, the agency opted for a balance between Alternative C and Alternative B, the most drastic of the four possibilities.
For the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which had endorsed Alternative B, the BLM’s decision isn’t perfect but is “nevertheless a step forward,” in the words of Staff Attorney Laura Peterson.
“I think it finally does justice to the Labyrinth Canyon corridor,” Peterson said. “It really is a balance between not just motorized and non-motorized recreation — it’s also a plan that minimizes impacts to natural and cultural sites, which is what BLM is obligated to do with these travel plans.”
The wilderness alliance, whoselawsuit against a number of 2008 travel management plans led to the series of new plans including this one, has called for the closure of OHV routes to reduce dust, noise and off-road impacts, improve the experience of non-motorized recreators and protect cultural sites and important desert habitat.
According to the organization, 94% of the Labyrinth Rim area’s 300,000 acres currently lie within a half mile of an OHV route, and 100% within two miles.
The plan leaves open 712 miles of routes and places restrictions on another 28 miles, primarily for conversion to motorized singletrack.
For the motorized recreation advocacy group BlueRibbon Coalition, however, the travel management plan forces excessive closures and constitutes a “handout to radical environmental groups.”
The group’s executive director, Ben Burr, said the plan’s impact isn’t limited to OHV users.
“I think they [OHVs] kind of get made into this scapegoat when the real people getting hurt are those who want to go camp and explore,” he said. “…It just is really, really limiting to all kind of recreation users that will want to use this area.”
Under the plan, popular Green River side canyons including Hellroaring Canyon, Hey Joe Canyon and Tenmile Wash will be entirely closed to motorized travel. The upper half of the Mineral Canyon route will also close. Spring Canyon will remain open until its confluence with the Green River.
Several of those routes are also trails used during Easter Jeep Safari, one of Moab’s oldest recurring events and a major tourist draw for the area. Rex Holman, the treasurer for Red Rock 4-Wheelers — the group that organizes the event — declined to comment, saying his team was still reviewing the BLM’s hundreds of pages of planning documents.
According to the BLM, the travel plan keeps open 91% of Easter Jeep routes within the management area.
“These routes are popular with OHV-based recreation enthusiasts, and … do not frequently lead to unauthorized off-route use and present relatively few resource impacts or known user conflicts,” wrote Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt, the district manager for the BLM’s Canyon Country Office.
Grand County’s role
Jacques Hadler, the chair of the Grand County Commission, praised the plan’s even-handedness and the BLM’s “careful, thoughtful work.”
“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,” Hadler said. “As visitation to the Moab area increases, finding this balance becomes increasingly difficult. The new travel plan does a strong job of finding this balance.”
Last October, the commission essentially endorsed Alternative B during a public comment period, which garnered input from over 10,000 people and organizations. The unanimous endorsement of the alternative — which would have closed 80 miles of trail beyond the BLM’s ultimate decision — yielded its own share of passionate local commentary.
The long view
For Burr, the plan is hardly set in stone. He said the BlueRibbon Coalition will likely appeal the decision with a federal review body, a precursor to a potential lawsuit. During its challenge, the coalition will also try to get a stay of implementation to preclude the BLM from closing routes.
“This is definitely a big step in this process, but the final word on what happens in this area will probably be determined in some kind of courtroom settlement,” Burr said.
That’s what happened in one of two other travel management plans the BLM has released as a result of the 2008 lawsuit. After the BLM released a 2020 plan on the San Rafael Desert that closed 35% of inventoried routes, SUWA and The Wilderness Society filed a lawsuit and reached a settlement with the BLM in 2022 to close an additional 120 miles.
Burr said the BlueRibbon Coalition appealed that decision and is still awaiting an outcome. Now, the Labyrinth Rims plan seems likely to follow a similarly litigious path.
The State of Utah also castigated the plan. A joint statement from the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office and the Division of Outdoor Recreation asked the BLM to withdraw the decision, saying the plan “unilaterally clos[es] down some of Utah’s high-value motorized trails while ignoring public rights-of-way.”
Burr said compared to the previous two travel plans, Labyrinth Rims is “without question” the most restrictive.
“That’s the closest we’ve ever really seen an agency in one of these planning processes get that close to the most restrictive option,” he said. “We don’t like that precedent.”
For Peterson, however, closing some OHV routes is simply the BLM fulfilling its mandate, if belatedly, to minimize damage and protect natural and cultural sites.
“What I hope this portends is that the BLM is looking at this from a holistic landscape scale,” Peterson said. “…Making sure there’s a travel plan that makes sense, that ensures access to recreation opportunities, to overlooks, to scenic areas, and allows for motorized recreation. But that also does protect resources and protects the reason people go to these places in the first place.”