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Environmentalists are pushing to close thousands of miles of Utah's off-road vehicle trails, and few places illustrate their beef with red-dirt riders better than Arch Canyon.
The southeastern Utah landmark, west of Blanding, has a stream-crossing trail muddied by off-road vehicles and a well-known collection of ancient rock art and Puebloan ruins.
Environmentalists want the trail and its 60 water crossings closed to vehicles to protect those resources from erosion and vandalism. Off-roaders want it to remain open so they can enjoy those sights.
"It doesn't look like the rest of southern Utah," Liz Thomas, a Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney, said Wednesday at a news conference calling on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to stop motorized travel in Arch Canyon and 3,000 miles of trails throughout the region. "It's green and lush. Water is flowing."
It's also ripe for archaeological looters and vandals because of the easy access, SUWA says.
The group previously asked the BLM to close the route, but the agency this fall rejected that petition. Now SUWA, which issued an unflattering report card Wednesday on the BLM's management of off-roaders, is urging closures of about 15 percent of the 20,000 miles of routes that were designated in travel plans for 11 million acres in southern and eastern Utah.
Off-roaderswho use Arch Canyon and trails throughout the region say SUWA is asking too much. Arch Canyon, in particular, is a longtime Jeep trail that gives southern Utahns especially San Juan County residents a picnic ground and a place to see petroglyphs, said Dale Parriott, of the Moab-based advocacy group Ride with Respect.
"It gives people the ability to get somewhere and enjoy the different scenic opportunities and historic opportunities," Parriott said of Arch Canyon. "It's their backyard."
Many Utahns are stuck in the middle of this debate, able to reach favorite haunts by car but disturbed by the damage that motorized access has wrought there. Salt Lake City resident Sam Carter pondered that dilemma last month while camped at Arch Canyon's mouth with his family.
"I've been coming out here ever since I was a kid," he said shortly after setting up his tent, while one of his young sons danced around bragging of knowing where to find petroglyphs. "I don't really see closing it to vehicles altogether, but I support leaving archaeological sites alone."
After Carter returned home, he said what he saw later during his stay disturbed but didn't surprise him. A ridge-top Puebloan ruin he had first seen in the 1990s now was well-trafficked, he said, with footprints in the delicate Cryptobiotic soil and potsherds removed and scattered on rocks, apparently to alert others to the site.
Carter said he also watched a two-person ATV and a motorcycle break a new trail at the canyon's upper end and saw other off-roaders moving up the canyon without using the trail marked by the BLM.
"I suppose I am less bothered by the increase in traffic," Carter wrote in an e-mail, "than I am by the apparent ignorance of some of those who visit."
SUWA's report card for the BLM's management of off-roaders gives the agency a "D" in protecting the environment, an "F" in appreciating history and other cultures, but a "B" for improving on the freewheeling access the group says existed before the 2008 travel plans.
SUWA already is suing the government over those plans, which designated about 20,000 miles of travel routes stretching from the Four Corners to Richfield to Flaming Gorge. Some of those dirt trails about 3,000 miles are in stream bottoms, archaeological sites or large, roadless areas.
"Closing less than 15 percent [of the trails] clearly would not preclude off-road vehicle use in southern Utah," said Thomas, the SUWA attorney.
Zach Frankel, of the Utah Rivers Council, said it's not a question of being for or against ATVs. Rather, the BLM should protect the most sensitive zones while leaving access open where it makes sense. He said 80 percent of Utah's wildlife species use stream areas at some point in their lives, and they should not be damaged by vehicles.
"We're not asking to remove ATVs from public lands," Frankel said at a news conference held jointly with SUWA and the Sierra Club. "All we're saying is do it responsibly."
BLM spokesman Mitch Snow said the agency spent years collecting public comments to create the travel plans. He added that the BLM constantly adds new signs and barriers to keep people from pioneering trails in areas that are not open.
"It's a balancing act," he said.
Moab motorcyclist Clif Koontz, also an officer for Ride with Respect, disputed SUWA's assertion that off-roaders can use 20,000 miles of routes. Much of that figure, he said, is dedicated to dirt roads that aren't any fun to ride. For instance, the BLM's Moab regional plan has a few thousand miles of open routes, but only 170 miles of the single-track or ATV trails favored by riders.
SUWA grades BLM's offroad oversight
"B" • for improving on a past that was wide open.
"D" • in protecting sensitive areas, such as desert canyon streams.
"F" • in appreciating historic and cultural resources.
"D" • in applying science that points to degradation worsening water supplies, dust storms and weed infestations.
"F" • in following a federal mandate to protect scientific, scenic, historic and other resources.
Source: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance