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The battle over motorized recreation in San Juan County, Utah
By Gail Binkly
A canyon wren flutes a series of delicate notes, a descending scale, into the soft air. In a deep pool beneath a pink boulder, speckled fish dart in and out of shadows.
A raven swoops low, looking for scraps left by visitors; its wings whoosh. A hummingbird hovers, its much-tinier wings thrumming. The silence is so pure that the sound of tent caterpillars’ droppings can be heard falling from trees – a gentle rustling, plopping sound. The caterpillars are everywhere, crawling across the fine sand in what appears to be an invasion of Biblical proportions.
It’s difficult to imagine that this serene canyon in southeastern Utah has for weeks, even months, been the center of a maelstrom – a dispute involving questions of federal vs. county authority, the New West vs. the Old West, Native Americans’ concerns vs. those of motorized recreationists.
But when a faint rumble in the distance swells into a loud growl, the crux of the controversy becomes apparent. A man on an all-terrain vehicle motors along the soft road, raising a spray of sand. He leans into a tight corner, guiding his ATV skillfully down a steep bank and through the shallow stream that ripples there. He rounds another corner and the noise fades.
It’s the afternoon of Saturday, April 21. A two-day Jeep Jamboree event has ended, and only an occasional off-highway vehicle moves along the rugged, 8 1/2-mile road that winds through scenic Arch Canyon.
There are a half-dozen canyons in the vicinity, all on public land managed by the BLM, but Arch Canyon is the only one with a stream running through it. It’s also the only one in the Comb Ridge area with a road. And therein lies the problem.
Environmentalists believe the road should be closed to motorized users to protect the riparian area as well as numerous Ancestral Puebloan sites.
But aficionados of motorized travel say that would deny them an enjoyable ride and keep them from seeing the beautiful arches that lie toward the end of the route.
It’s one battle in a long-running war in San Juan County, Utah, where longtime local residents and county officials are overwhelmingly supportive of motorized routes on public lands.
Their zeal has led to numerous conflicts with federal officials and environmental groups:
• In 2000, County Sheriff Mike Lacy took down closure signs on a dirt road in Canyonlands National Park that had been closed for 2 1/2 years by order of the National Park Service.
• In 2004, Lacy and County Commissioner Lynn Stevens led a Jeep Jamboree up Arch Canyon in defiance of the BLM, which had denied a permit for the event.
• In 2005, BLM officials said an offroad group had caused $10,000 worth of damage to a historic Mormon pioneer trail, the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail near Bluff, by illegally improving it to make it more accessible to vehicles. The group’s leaders admitted doing minor work with pry bars and sledgehammers but said they hadn’t damaged the trail, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
• Now, the fur is flying over charges that OHV groups are secretly and illegally constructing trails on public lands. In Recapture Canyon in 2005, illegal trails and bridges and culverts were built that crossed several major archaeological sites, according to various reports. Now, the BLM is considering granting San Juan County an authorized right of way on the trails after the fact. A group known as SPEAR (San Juan Public Entry and Access Rights) has been accused of bulldozing a route from the top of Lime Ridge in San Juan County to Comb Wash as part of a planned interconnecting system of motorized trails. The vice president of SPEAR, Brent Johansen, said in a letter to the local newspapers that the trail had existed for some time and had merely been maintained. He did not return a phone call from the Free Press.
“We are concerned that there are a lot of trails being built under the noses of most people in San Juan County, without their knowledge,” said Krisanne Bender, president of the newly organized Canyon Country Heritage Association, a local group that focuses on off-highway-vehicle issues.
So when California-based Jeep Jamboree USA and another organization, Cruise Moab/Rising Sun 4 Wheel Drive Club of Colorado, each applied for a five-year permit to hold events in Arch Canyon beginning this year, it renewed the controversy over motorized access.
The BLM’s Monticello Field Office, which manages Arch Canyon, considered granting the permits as part of an action that would have allowed up to eight different organized motor-vehicle events in the canyon annually.
“The BLM on their own just said, ‘Let’s do a programmatic EA so we never have to address this again’,” said Liz Thomas, attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an environmental group based in Salt Lake City. “It was crazy.”
But Gary Torres, planner for the BLM’s Monticello Field Office, which oversees Arch Canyon, said the proposal to allow up to eight motorized events was intended to save the agency some time and trouble. “We kind of thought a program of eight would meet any future need that we could anticipate. We were just trying to analyze impacts from a broader scale.”
Comments poured in to the BLM – 24,000 all told, the majority opposing the sweeping permit. At the last minute, the agency instead granted a permit only for Jeep Jamboree’s single event in April and for Cruise Moab’s event, scheduled May 2 and 3. Both permits had numerous stipulations designed to protect the canyon.
But the argument is far from over. The Monticello Field Office is working on a revision of its resource management plan, which was last revised in 1991. Travel and access will be among the issues addressed. The draft plan is expected to be released for public comment sometime this summer.
Undoubtedly it will prompt more debate over the role of motorized recreation on Utah’s stunning public lands
“Arch Canyon is kind of the warning shot across the bow saying, ‘We’re very interested in this, folks’,” commented Torres.
“We have 1.8 million acres and 4,000 miles of road, and this is just 8 1/2 miles of road and one specific canyon. If we got this much grief over that, you can imagine what we’ll see when we’re trying to make other allocations regarding camping, hiking, mining, OHV use, oil and gas – all of that. Clearly we anticipate a huge level of comments.”
A handful of sign-carrying protesters greeted the Jeep enthusiasts in Arch Canyon the morning of April 20. A scattering of nails near the start of the road also awaited the motorists, according to the BLM, but the nails were removed and no one had a flat tire.
“The law-enforcement report I saw said they [the rangers] gathered enough that it was not just an accidental drop,” Torres said. “But they had a magnet and dragged it through and retrieved them.
“If that was done deliberately I’m sure it was just an individual, some dumb-head,” he said.
Sandy Meyers, manager for the Monticello Field Office, said the Jeep event went “very well” and the nail incident didn’t amount to much. She said the ranger had no way of knowing how long the nails had been in the road. “They could have been there for an unknown period of time.”
SUWA’s Thomas was among the protesters. “We had a few folks watching, but none of us even walked up the canyon,” she said. “We didn’t even know about [the nails] till now. We made it real clear we weren’t going to lie down in front of a Jeep or harass anyone.”
“The event went very, very well,” agreed Pearse Umlauf, vice president of Jeep Jamboree USA. “We had a great time.
“The community of Blanding is amazing. They’re very supportive. We probably put $50,000 in the local community in a few days.”
He said about 70 people in 38 Jeeps participated, with half traveling a nearby route called Hotel Rock and the other half in Arch Canyon on either day. “It’s not a location where we can increase the size of the event much,” he said. “We’re allowed only 25 vehicles on each trail.”
He said the controversy is between the BLM and environmentalists and doesn’t much involve his organization.
“We had some protesters down there one day,” he said. “They had some great signs. They were very respectful. People have the right to protest.”
But concerns about the harm the Jamboree might cause were unfounded, Umlauf believes.
Jeep Jamboree is one of the founding members of the Tread Lightly organization, he said, “and we practice all their principles.” Participants are instructed in measures designed to minimize recreational impacts and ride with trained guides.
Camping is not allowed in the canyon, so those in the Jeep caravan drive up the road, have lunch on the trail, and come back to camp elsewhere or stay in a motel.
“Our participants are really the nicest folks out there,” Umlauf said. “They consider themselves environmentalists. They don’t want to see the terrain changed or the land degraded. They want it to stay the same year after year.”
He said their average speed is 3 mph. “This is a very family-oriented atmosphere, not a big rock-crawling competition.
“We clean up a lot of garbage. We go to trails around the U.S., we do trail clean-up, we build water bars to stop erosion. We’re trying to be stewards of the environment.”
Umlauf said the real problem is dispersed recreation.
“There’s a big misconception that groups such as ours do damage to the land. The truth is, organized groups, from our experience, are not the ones who do damage. It’s individual users.
“There’s a lot of misplaced anger toward OHV groups. We have a vested interest to do it right so we can come back next year.”
Torres agreed that organized events usually are policed well. “The big challenge is unpermitted events,” he said. “Dispersed use. That’s much harder to get ahold of.”
Seeking common ground
Umlauf said even hikers are not always benign.
“I’ve been to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the base of Mt. Everest, and I’m ashamed of what some hikers have done. Look at Mt. Everest – it’s got garbage everywhere, and parts have been deforested for firewood.”
He suggested part of the solution to increasing conflicts on public lands may be setting times for different users. “Don’t have a bunch of dirt bikers out when the horseback riders are there,” he said.
And Congress needs to give the federal land agencies more money for law enforcement and resource protection, Umlauf said. “A lot of these districts want to do a better job and don’t have the funding and manpower to do it.”
But despite Umlauf’s support for the federal agencies, the Jamboree was at loggerheads with the BLM in 2004, when the agency denied the group’s application for a permit. Previous permits had been issued with little examination of environmental impacts, according to the BLM. In 2004 the Monticello field office said the application had not been submitted in time to complete an adequate environmental analysis, and the Jamboree, with the blessing of San Juan County officials, held the event anyway.
“That was between the county and BLM, over who had jurisdiction over the road,” Umlauf said. “To our knowledge, the county was given jurisdiction.”
Jeep Jamboree proceeded with the 2004 event but didn’t seek a permit in 2005 or 2006.
This year, “The county asked us to apply for a BLM permit so we would all be on the same page,” Umlauf said.
Torres said county officials this time around were “very supportive” of the BLM. “One of these groups asked the county, ‘Can we just get a permit from you?’ and they said ‘No, you need to work with BLM’. The county really backed us up. We have a really good working relationship now because we’ve opened up dialogue.”
Jeep Jamboree has been coming to Arch Canyon since 1989, Umlauf said. One event annually is all they ever plan to have in the canyon, he said.
“Our hope is that groups like SUWA and groups like ours can come together and have some talks. There needs to be control over individual users. We have to try to find common ground.”
Icons of scenery
But Stevens, chair of the county commission, doesn’t see much hope for consensus between motorized users and environmental groups. He said he read a recent fund-raising letter by SUWA that “basically says, ‘We will someday silence the sounds of engines in Arch Canyon’. If that’s their attitude, there won’t be any possibility of coexistence.”
Stevens, like most elected officials in San Juan County, is a staunch supporter of the rights of motorized users, and he said the road in Arch Canyon is needed.
“Motorized access to the icons of the scenery, the arches, is pretty important to people who don’t hike,” he said. “A lot of people want to see the arches. They’re a little different from others in this erosion country because they’re more characteristic of freezing and breaking and having chunks fall out.”
He said it’s up to the BLM to decide whether there is “really an inordinate amount of damage created to the environment by allowing motor vehicles on that road.”
“We have pretty much left that responsibility to the BLM using whatever guidelines and science and facts that are available to them,” Stevens said.
However, in 2004 Stevens and other county officials didn’t leave the question up to the BLM, but led the nonpermitted Jamboree up the road.
“That’s a fair observation,” Stevens said. “But what the issue has to do with, as far as the county is concerned, is the use of the road. We assert no responsibility or authority outside the boundaries of that roadway.”
In Stevens’ view, the road up Arch Canyon belongs to San Juan County. “I know that road’s been in existence and in use for over 50 years,” he said. “So part of the legal issue has to do with RS 2477 ownership.”
RS 2477 refers to a statute in the Mining Act of 1866 that grants local governments rights-of-way for constructing “highways” across public lands. It was repealed in 1976, but claims regarding roads that existed prior to then can still be judged valid.
However, San Juan County has yet to file an actual claim for the road in Arch Canyon, according to Thomas, who says the road is just a “trail.”
“The county has the burden of proof to show 10 years of continuous use before 1976,” Thomas said. “They have never filed a claim. It’s a trail on BLM land, and it may remain that way. Just because someone drove it in the past a long time ago doesn’t mean it qualifies as an RS 2477 right-of-way.”
In 2001, the U.S. District Court for Utah ruled that RS 2477 claims applied to roads that had been “constructed” and that mere usage did not necessarily create a valid road. It also said roads with no clear destination did not constitute “highways” under the RS 2477 language. The decision has been appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The county remains in litigation with the National Park Service over the Salt Creek road in Canyonlands. There, a vehicle route leads along and through the creek to the scenic Angel Arch, a popular destination. The Park Service maintains that use of the road was damaging the riparian area and blocked it. Despite the county’s action in “opening” the road in 2000, it remains closed to motor vehicles.
The case is awaiting a hearing before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. SUWA and other environmental groups have filed to be allowed to join in the case.
“Salt Creek and Arch Canyon have a lot of similarities,” Thomas said. “Both are in Cedar Mesa sandstone. Both have lots of cultural resources and an incredible riparian system that runs the length of the canyon, and an old trail that crosses in and out of the stream.”
The Arch Canyon route crosses the stream 60 times, according to SUWA. Stevens disputes that number.
“I took a mechanical sheep-counter up there, and you cross it 49 times, and about 35 of them are dry,” he said.
Thomas said the exact number doesn’t matter. “Given that there are thousands of miles of dirt roads in San Juan County that go to beautiful places, and that less than 1 percent of the 23 million acres of BLM land in Utah is riparian, it’s ridiculous to allow that place to be degraded just for folks to have fun driving up an 8-mile stretch.”
Ronni Egan, executive director of the Durango, Colo.-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness, agrees.
“Arch Canyon is one of a very few perennial streams in an extremely arid environment,” Egan said. “Although it occupies only a tiny fraction of the landscape, probably 80 percent of desert animals would rely at some point in their life cycle on places like Arch Canyon.”
Three species of fish live in the stream, including the flannelmouth sucker, according to SUWA; the flannelmouth is on the BLM’s list of “sensitive species.” Spadefoot toads and other amphibians reproduce in the water.
Such animals are sensitive to contaminants and to habitat degradation caused by motor vehicles, SUWA argues. On a recent visit to Arch Canyon, a sheen of oil could be seen in at least one pool.
“These animals are adapted to flash floods,” Thomas said, “but having motor vehicles driving up a streambed stirring up sediment and tearing down the banks and creating more silt – that’s different.” She said tires create ruts that change floodplains and alter the channel of the water.
Arch Canyon also contains critical habitat designated for the Mexican spotted owl, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, according to SUWA.
“The petition mentioned the southwestern willow flycatcher and spotted owls and things that have never in the history of man been seen there,” Stevens countered.
Great Old Broads, SUWA and others petitioned the BLM earlier this year for an emergency interim closure for Arch Canyon that would keep out motorized vehicles until the BLM finishes is management plan, but the BLM did not grant the closure.
“San Juan County has put together a very long historical record with photos showing the history since 1950,” Stevens said. “The evidence shows the health of the canyon is better now than 20, 30 or 40 years ago.”
About a month after the 2004 Jeep Jamboree, there was a big storm and water rushed through Arch Canyon, Stevens said. “I went up there on an ATV and there was no evidence that there had been 50 Jeeps there a month before,” he said. “Conditions in that streambed are either destroyed or reestablished by flash floods. Nature herself takes care of that canyon.”
Used for leverage?
The other big concern in Arch Canyon is its cultural resources.
Anasazi cliff dwellings can be seen in a few alcoves along the canyon walls, but there are an estimated 100 sites throughout the canyon, including one a short distance from the road, according to an archaeologist hired by SUWA. The BLM has never done a thorough survey, Thomas said.
“They’re making decisions with completely inadequate information, to say no cultural resources will be harmed, because they don’t know what’s there,” Thomas said.
The Hopi and Navajo tribes have supported the environmentalists’ call for an interim closure in Arch Canyon.
In a Feb. 26 letter to the BLM, the chair of the Navajo Utah Commission, which consists of tribal councilors representing the Navajo lands that lie in Utah, asked the BLM to protect Arch Canyon from off-road-vehicle use.
“The Utah Navajo Commission recognizes the Bear’s Ears, Abajo Mountains and surrounding canyons, including Arch Canyon, as aboriginal land that is significant to Navajo culture,” the letter states. It continues that the area contains plants important in Navajo traditional ceremonies, as well as “numerous undocumented prehistoric cultural sites, including very sensitive ceremonial sites.”
The Hopi Cultural Preservation Office wrote the BLM on March 7 stating that the proposed motorized events have “the potential to adversely affect identified and unidentified cultural resources significant to the Hopi Tribe,” which claims ancestral and cultural affiliation with the Ancestral Puebloans.
Representatives of the Utah Navajo Commission and the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office did not return phone calls from the Free Press.
The tribes’ concerns, particularly the Navajos’, were met with a certain amount of skepticism in San Juan County, with some citizens in letters to the editor calling the Native Americans’ late arrival on the closure bandwagon a political ploy.
“They have been used by the wilderness societies to provide a lot of leverage,” Stevens said. “I grew up in this county. I was gone for a time, but to my knowledge the Navajos have never claimed any particular kinship with the Anasazi and the people that were in the canyon. The boundary of the Navajo reservation in Utah is many, many miles south.”
He said he met with members of the Navajo Utah Commission to explain the county’s position on Arch Canyon “and to a person not one of the members had ever been to Arch Canyon.”
Stevens said he has concerns about “abuse and misuse” by some ATV enthusiasts, “but that’s an issue of enforcement rather than just denying the use to everyone.”
He said if the county ultimately wins jurisdiction over the Salt Creek road, he would consider seasonal closures to protect delicate resources, and closing the trail to motorized users on alternating days so people seeking quiet and solitude could be assured of having it. But he said such a solution isn’t appropriate for Arch Canyon because it isn’t in a national park.
Stevens said the fact that most comments about motorized travel in Arch Canyon opposed it doesn’t mean a lot.
“I think it’s totally absurd to assume that the damage on the ground can be determined by a popular vote,” Stevens said.
“It’s a hard concept for the public to grasp, but we’re not voting on this issue,” Torres said.
Of all the comments, “far and away the majority were form letters from an environmental groups web site,” Torres said. “When somebody writes and says, ‘I don’t like that proposal,’ I’m stumped. What do I do with that? I wish these groups would teach their constituents how to make more effective comments. If they say, ‘I’m concerned that total dissolved solids in the stream can increase,’ that I can deal with.”
The agency tracks every comment and tries to distill the central issues and how to deal with them, Torres said.
But environmentalists say “votes” should matter. “The desire for protection of the public resources can certainly be determined by a popular vote, I would say,” commented Egan.
“These are public lands,” Thomas said. “They belong to every citizen in the U.S., not just San Juan County residents or the commissioners. It’s not the fiefdom of a BLM field office or a county.”
Bender of the Canyon Country Heritage Association is perhaps typical of newer residents in the Four Corners who are challenging the way public lands have traditionally been managed.
Bender moved to Bluff from California 1 1/2 years ago. She argues that the increasing number of recreationists on public lands, especially motorized users, requires careful planning and consideration of the big picture. “All of this should be contained in a larger EIS [environmental impact statement],” Bender said. “It looks a lot different when you take little portions – it looks more benign.
“We’re working to have influence in the county, not to close down all motorized access, but so they know there are people paying attention who are aware and intelligent and want to make sure things are being done in a manner that is in harmony with Mother Earth -– not to sound like too much of a granolacruncher,” she added, laughing.
Bender said motorized uses in Arch Canyon are destructive. “We’re talking about a narrow canyon that’s 8 miles in length and crossing it 60 times in one direction and taking the same route back. There’s no way that the environment can heal from that in any timely manner.
“Arch Canyon is beautiful. It’s transformative,” Bender said. “Will we just write that off and say, ‘It was an amazing place once’?”