SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A judge on Monday overturned a Bush-era management plan that opened more than 4,200 miles of dirt paths to motorized vehicles on public rangelands across a wide region of Utah.
U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball ruled that a U.S. land-management agency failed to consider how vehicles were accelerating soil erosion and threatening archaeological sites. Kimball's ruling sent the Richfield district plan back to the Bureau of Land Management. The paths will stay open until a final decision is made later.
Environmental groups said it was the first plan developed by the former administration of President George W. Bush to be struck down in Utah.
"This landmark decision is a resounding rejection of the BLM's mismanagement of Utah's stunning public lands," said Stephen Bloch, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
During Bush's two terms in office, the BLM developed rules on everything from oil and gas drilling to off-road vehicle use across six districts of Utah.
The Richfield district covers 3,100 square miles of land, much of it stretching from Capitol Reef National Park east to Canyonlands National Park and south to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The district includes the Henry Mountains, the last mountain range to be discovered in the Lower 48, and the remote Dirty Devil River area.
More than half of the Richfield district was recognized in the BLM plan as worthy of wilderness designation, with thousands of archaeological sites.
Previously, much of the district was left open to unrestricted cross-country travel. Off-road use increased significantly leading to the adoption of the management plan, leaving a network of user-created routes embraced by the new management plan, according to Kimball's decision.
The judge said the BLM failed to consider how off-road vehicles dig up soil, and failed to take into account the impact of the meandering dirt paths on archaeological sites.
"BLM regulations require the BLM to minimize the impacts of designated routes on resources such as soils, watersheds, vegetation, air, wildlife, and cultural resources," Kimball wrote in a 34-page decision.
Federal lawyers asked for time before the judge instructs them on how to rewrite the plan. Kimball gave both sides until Jan. 10 to submit written arguments.
Earthjustice argued the lawsuit for a number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Utah Rivers Council, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rocky Mountain Wild and Great Old Broads for Wilderness.