By Sally Wisely, state director of the Bureau of Land Management, overseeing 23 million acres of public lands in Utah
As State Director for BLM in Utah, it was gratifying to see the Supreme Court rule to curtail unnecessary litigation and unanimously reject SUWA's OHV lawsuit. I was disappointed however, as I read various follow-up media accounts and felt compelled to provide additional information and background. I have three main points I'd like to focus on: 1) the court's decision addressed a specific issue but still allows for legal challenge of agency decisions, 2) our Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), are being appropriately managed and protected, and 3) OHV management is a continuing challenge that BLM is actively addressing.
First, the Supreme Court ruling dealt with a specific question regarding the Administrative Procedures Act. It clarified that courts should steer clear of judicial entanglement in the day to day operations of an agency, but still provides ample opportunities for administrative protests, appeals and legal challenges of all agency decisions. That's appropriate in a democracy, and we're all better off for it.
Next let me address our 95 wilderness study areas (WSAs) managed by BLM to protect their suitability for congressional wilderness designation. Under national guidelines, motorized vehicle use is permissible in these areas as long as it is restricted to routes in existence at the time the WSA was established and it does not result in degradation that would impair the area's wilderness suitability. Cross-country travel may be allowed under certain conditions, including use in sand dunes. Bottom line: our 95 WSAs are protected and managed to meet non-impairment standards. All are still available to Congress. None have been precluded from consideration as wilderness. Do we have management issues and some isolated trouble spots? Yes. Are we addressing them? Yes, on a continuing basis. I categorically refute the allegation that we're sitting on our hands doing nothing.
The San Rafael Swell and the WSAs within it are a case in point. The transportation plan has been completed, and new maps and signs have clarified where people can and cannot legally ride. The addition of an Emery County sheriff deputy through a joint federal and county funding agreement has greatly improved safety and compliance. Vehicle restrictions in all seven WSAs that encircle the Swell are now secure largely due to the monitoring efforts of our staff, local OHV clubs and individual volunteers.
Moquith Mountain WSA, where we share a dunescape with the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park serves as another example. This area is a pressure point where escalating OHV numbers and concern for special status species prompted a reassessment. While the species of concern were certified healthy (by us, Fish and Wildlife Service and multiple judges), our 1998 study did identify areas of vegetation loss and new route development in non-dune portions of the WSA. This prompted a new plan instituting conservation measures from emergency OHV-use closure of non-dune portions of the WSA, delineation of open routes; and most importantly, the development of a cooperative protocol between the BLM and State Parks. Admittedly, managing a growing OHV play area adjacent to a State Park in a way that maintains wilderness suitability is not an easy task. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the WSA "holding pattern" has now persisted for nearly a quarter-century. However, we will uphold our responsibilities to maintain the area so its wilderness eligibility remains undiminished.
My last point concerns OHV management. Improving OHV management on Utah public lands has been a priority of mine from day one. Off-roading is a legitimate activity enjoyed by many people and certainly part of BLMs multiple-use mission. But there is no question that it is a major challenge. We have a statewide management strategy, the first in the bureau, and we are very active with our state and federal partners through the Natural Resources Coordinating Council to ensure a coordinated statewide approach to OHV management. We patrol, put up signs and barricades, issue emergency orders when and where necessary (10 in the last few years), monitor, take corrective action, have information and education programs, issue citations, and partner with other agencies, industry and user groups.
We are currently developing transportation plans on over 10 million acres through our planning process; this is extra challenging with the RS-2477 issue unresolved. We have identified OHV management as a priority issue to our national office and requested additional resources. It's interesting to note that the environmental community sued us saying we were doing nothing while at the same time the OHV community sued us saying we were doing too much. On a personal note, it's disappointing to see our limited resources diverted to dealing with lawsuits, rather than on the ground issues.
I believe we're doing a great deal, and you know what? There are still problem areas. Given the open nature of our terrain and the continually increasing capabilities of the machines, Patton's army wouldn't be able to guarantee some knucklehead won't bust a gate or joyride out of bounds. User responsibility and accountability must be absolute. It's unfortunate that the good standing of our WSAs and the yeoman efforts of our staff to keep them that way, as well as our OHV management efforts in general, is a story few other than federal judges get to hear about.