Save a hoodoo: Help BLM create plan for Moab area
September 24, 2003
The desert playgrounds around Moab, Utah, that are so popular with Roaring Fork Valley residents may face more restrictions within the next year.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is working on a new resource management plan that will dictate specific uses that are allowed in areas of the immense district. That plan – similar to the White River National Forest Plan that was completed in 2002 – will determine issues such as where cross-country travel will be banned, where oil exploration is appropriate and rules for camping.
The last plan was written in 1985 and is grossly outdated, noted Maggie Wyatt, field office manager for the Moab district. For example, mountain biking was largely unknown then, and off-road vehicle use has exploded in the following 18 years.
While a national debate is focusing on how President Bush’s energy policy will influence oil exploration on public lands like those around Moab, Wyatt said her staff is facing bigger challenges from the recreation explosion, particularly off-road vehicle use.
“I think it’s the biggest issue,” she said. “We’re just completely overrun.”
As odd as it may seem in a somewhat environmentally conscious age, as much as a quarter of the nearly 2 million acres that the BLM administers around Moab is still open to cross-country travel.
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Any desert rat knows that tires – fat or skinny – and even footprints are deadly to the cryptobiotic soils that are known as the building blocks of the desert. The dark crust holds sand in place and often allows vegetation to take hold.
The proliferation of off-road vehicle use is forcing the BLM to take steps to limit cross-country travel and require vehicles of all types to stay on existing roads and trails.
Wyatt enacted emergency rules in January 2001 that restricted travel to existing routes in five separate areas totaling 250,000 acres around Moab. “We realized we couldn’t wait,” she said.
Restrictions were also recently added in the Canyon Rims area south of Moab.
Four-wheel groups filed a lawsuit contending that the public process wasn’t followed. The lawsuit was tossed this spring.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance joined the fray with the complaint that vehicles should have been restricted to designated routes because some existing routes were created by users and never endorsed by the BLM.
Wyatt said the updated resource management plan will consider further restrictions on cross-country travel. She said she doesn’t feel the restrictions are unfair because 6,000 miles of dirt roads and trails exist in Grand County, Utah.
A map of the district shows there is a hodgepodge of rules dictating off-road vehicle use. Open travel is generally allowed in areas east of Arches and south of the La Sal Mountains. But it would be impossible for even a conscientious off-roader to know exactly what rules dictate what area, based on the map.
Compliance is largely voluntary since the BLM has only two enforcement officers to cover almost 2 million acres. The district stretches from north of Interstate 70 to Indian Creek on the south and from the Colorado border to almost the San Rafael Swell to the west.
“It’s the same old story – the people who are going to be good are going to be good; the people who are going to be bad are going to be bad,” said Katie Stevens, a recreation technician in the BLM’s Moab office.
She said BLM studies estimate that 80 percent of the environmental damage occurs in the two weeks surrounding Easter, when visitors swamp the desert. Bicycles don’t create as big of problems as off-road vehicles because their ability to cut cross country is often limited by cactus or terrain.
The damage to desert lands isn’t just from off-road enthusiasts. The BLM estimates that the Moab district receives about 2 million visits annually, from boaters to hikers to off-roaders. That dwarfs the 800,000 annual visits to Arches National Park.
The explosion in popularity of mountain biking has probably created the biggest changes in Moab over the past 15 years. Unrestricted camping along the River Road east of town and the Potash Road to the west was creating problems with human waste and damage to resources. The level of visitation, and problems, wasn’t anticipated by the 1985 land-use plan. Rules that weren’t viewed as necessary were passed after the plan’s completion.
“We have done some things in the interim out of necessity,” said Wyatt.
Camping has been restricted to developed areas in places like the River Road and Potash Road, and 89 toilets have been placed in campgrounds since 1992. The BLM has also planted in excess of 500 signs informing visitors of various rules.
Desert visitors from the Aspen area and all over are invited to comment on land uses in their favorite areas. The BLM is in what’s known as the public scoping phase of its study. It will accept written comments from the public through Oct. 15.
To learn more about the planning process and some of the issues being weighed, visit http://www.moabrmp.com. Public comments can be made via a link from that site or by mailing them to 82 Dogwood Ave., Moab, Utah 84532.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]