Off-road activist says he's tossed in the towel
He declares, after ruling, he'll no longer fight wilderness designations
By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
A hard-line advocate for untrammeled motorized back-country adventure said Friday he would no longer fight efforts to turn federal land into wilderness, saying "stupid environmental pretexts" would always win the day in court.
Rainer Huck, former director of Utah Shared Access Alliance, said a federal ruling handed down Thursday that upheld motorized travel restrictions in the San Rafael Swell signaled the end of his efforts to thwart conservationists.
"It's like battling the Borg: Resistance is futile," Huck said during a phone call from Blue Notch, a desert region near Lake Powell's Hite Marina where he was dirt-biking with his family. "We might as well just designate all of Utah wilderness now and get it over with."
U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball's ruling Thursday actually said nothing about wilderness, but it did demolish every argument Huck, the Southeastern Utah OHV Club and seven individuals Huck described as "friends of the San Rafael" used to appeal the federal Interior Department's support for a Bureau of Land Management travel plan.
The BLM's Price district was the first in Utah to finish such a plan after the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance successfully sued them to satisfy an executive order President Richard Nixon issued decades ago.
After a long environmental review process that included on-the-ground surveys of all of the trails and roads in the Price district, the field office decided to close 468 miles of trail to motorized access but keep open 677 miles of disputed area that, added to existing highways and roads, left 1,977 miles open to OHVs and motorcycles.
Mark H. Williams, a plaintiff in the case Kimball decided, said the Southeastern Utah OHV Club helped with the BLM inventory but didn't like the results.
"We'd go out and show them a trail, and that was the one they closed down," he said.
Williams agreed some of the trails should be closed, but argued OHV enthusiasts wanted continued access to the Muddy River, Junes Bottom, Old Woman Wash, Iron Wash and other areas near Temple Mountain and Copper Globe.
Huck and Williams complained that hikers and bicyclists could ride ATV trails, but not necessarily the reverse.
Mike Swensen, director of Utah Shared Access Alliance, said his group didn't view the travel plan as "the worst thing on Earth," but did believe it too restrictive and called for congressional action to settle county road claims that now are handled under each state's laws.
Off-highway vehicle riders for the past 30 years have had unlimited access to more than 1,000 miles of dirt roads and double tracks through the San Rafael Swell's red sandstone reefs, white salt domes, slot canyons and washes that stretch across 1 million acres in east-central Utah.
As the number of OHV users has increased, so has the number of hikers and bikers who objected to environmental degradation. But BLM officials say conflicts over access were only part of the reason the roads and trails were closed.
Some trails were duplicates, some roads seemed to go nowhere. Threats to endangered species and cultural resources including historic structures and ancient rock art also figured into the BLM decision, as did potential wild and scenic river designations.
The off-road groups sued in 2005 after a rebuff from the the Interior Board of Land Appeals. Kimball's ruling upheld the IBLA, reaffirmed Interior's ruling that road claims had to be decided in court and swept aside new claims that the road and trail closures violated the federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act.
Huck said the ruling showed disregard for disabled people, and predicted that when the rest of the travel plans are finished, "the BLM lands will look exactly like a national park. It just breaks my heart."
Defendants in the lawsuit included BLM officials and the Secretary of the Interior. SUWA, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club were allowed to intervene as defendants.
SUWA attorney Steve Bloch said Friday that Kimball's 23-page ruling, the second affirmation of the Price district travel plan, should serve as a model for other district offices as develop their travel regulations.
"This plan sets the standard. The BLM looked at every single mile of trail they were going to designate. They were on the ground," Bloch said. "This is the type of plan that SUWA and the public should expect."