October 21, 2008

Heidi McIntosh, Associate Director, SUWA, 801.428.3980
Liz Thomas, SUWA Moab Field Attorney, 435.259.5440
Veronica Egan, Director, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, 970.799-4361

Court Rules that It May Review BLM Decision to Ignore Damage and Allow Off-Road Vehicles in Arch Canyon

SALT LAKE CITY, UT. Yesterday, a federal judge sitting in Utah ruled that two environmental groups could sue the Bureau of Land Management to challenge the agency’s decision to leave Arch Canyon an archaeological and scenic marvel -- open to destructive off-road vehicle (ORV) use. 

The groups, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Great Old Broads for Wilderness, together with the Navajo Utah Commission and local outfitters, filed a petition in December 2006 requesting that the BLM close the ecologically fragile canyon to ORVs.  The petition was based on two scientific studies showing that ORVs damaged archaeological sites, crushed native plants, eroded the stream banks, polluted the water and devastated habitat for a rare native fish known as the flannelmouth sucker. After the BLM summarily rejected the request in a one-page letter, with no supporting analysis, the two conservationist groups sued the BLM and asked the court to review the case. 

“The BLM has for too long ignored ORV abuse, arguing that they have a ‘get out of jail free card.’  It has played that card for the last time, and now will be held accountable for the damage and abuse it has allowed on our public lands,” said Heidi McIntosh, SUWA associate director and attorney for the groups.

Arch Canyon, located in far southeastern Utah, west of spectacular Comb Ridge, is 8.5 miles in length from its mouth to the end of the route at the boundary of the Manti La Sal National Forest.  Jeeps cross the stream at the bottom of the canyon 120 times during their round-trip rides, leaving crumbling banks, struggling vegetation, water pollution and ugly scars. 

Veronica Egan, of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, explained, “We are very pleased that the court has recognized that the BLM must address the public's concerns in these critical land management issues. The fragile desert stream and priceless archaeological resources in Arch Canyon must be protected from off road vehicles.”

Arch Canyon also contains numerous archaeological sites, only a fraction of which have been surveyed by the BLM.  Jerry Spangler, an archaeologist who provided the study for the closure petition conducted additional surveys and concluded that ORV use was destructive for these1,000 year-old sites, in part due to the “direct relationship between unrestricted vehicular access and site vandalism.”  Mr. Spangler predicted further deterioration of the sites unless there are limitations on vehicular access.

Until recently, Arch Canyon was also the site of the highly controversial Jeep Jamboree, where dozens of jeeps would ride the canyon en mass. In 2004, after the BLM denied the permit, San Juan County held an illegal version of the Jamboree, encouraging jeeps to drive the canyon despite the lack of a permit.  The county argued that the primitive dirt route is actually a county highway under a little-known, repealed law known as R.S. 2477.  The BLM did not block the renegade event. 

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