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A new plan to manage public lands in six counties surrounding Richfield would open nearly all of the region to oil and gas drilling and off-highway vehicle-recreation use under a U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposal.

Under the preferred alternative in the BLM Richfield field office's draft resource management proposal, 79 percent of the 2.1 million acres of land would be available for energy development and 90 percent would be open to OHV travel.

That makes the Richfield draft the least restrictive to development and motorized travel of the six draft plans released in the last two months that would govern more than 11 million acres of BLM land in Utah for the next two decades.

The plan serves as a draft environmental impact statement, designed to figure out how to balance competing interests on public land. The task has become more difficult since the OHV boom began in the 1980s and 3.2 million acres of land were designated as protected wilderness study areas. Energy-development mandates from the Bush administration, included in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, exacerbated the wilderness conflicts.

An industry representative noted that even with most of the area open to oil and gas development, sections have restrictive conservation requirements for their use.

"The extensive environmental protections included in the preferred alternative for the Richfield [plan] will make developing energy in the area more costly," said Kathleen Sgamma, spokeswoman for the Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.

The draft doesn't include a travel plan or OHV maps. But 260 maps of trails and roads are available on the Richfield Web site, said field office spokesman Wayne Wetzel. A route inventory is ongoing, he said.

One particular source of discord is Factory Butte, a wide-open badlands located in Wayne County near Capitol Reef. A year ago, the BLM closed nearly all of it to cross-country travel except for a 2,600-acre "play area" known as Swing Arm City. The emergency action was taken to protect endangered Wrights Fishook cactus and the threatened Winkler cactus.

The Richfield preferred alternative would retain Swing Arm City but manage the rest of Factory Butte as a designated trail system. The Big Rocks area near Loa, Rainbow Hills east of Richfield and White Hills between Gunnison and Mayfield also would be kept as open play areas. That translates into 8,400 open acres for OHVs, with another 1.9 million acres accessible via designated routes.

By comparison, an alternative that focuses on wilderness qualities on non-wilderness land would keep 46 percent of the region open to OHV travel with no play areas.

The Richfield update is the first since several interim plans were written 16 to 30 years ago. The other five recently published BLM drafts - Moab, Kanab, Monticello and supplemental studies from Vernal and Price - have similarly lagged.

But critics, including environmental advocates and OHV enthusiasts, have questioned the need to push the plans out so quickly now when public comment is critical to final BLM decisions. The six overlapping comment periods culminating on Feb. 8 would require concerned citizens to digest some 4,000 pages of text, comparative charts, maps and supporting documentation.

"Many of these plans started scoping in November 2001. These have been somewhat extended processes. Now it's the public's turn . . . and there is no time," said Wilderness Society attorney Nada Culver. "Even if we didn't have the holidays, this would be difficult."

After barely being able to glance at the Kanab plan last month, Utah Shared Access Alliance director Mike Swensen commented on the pile of homework the BLM was assigning without regard to everyday people's time constraints.

"It doesn't matter what side you're on, it's wrong," he said. "How can the public have meaningful impact the way these are coming out?"

Public hearing schedule

The Richfield field office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has released a draft study of 2.1 million acres spread across Sanpete, Sevier, Piute, Wayne, Garfield and Kane counties. The district includes the mountains, canyons and deserts of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau.

The Henry Mountains, Parker Mountain, the Sevier, Fremont and Dirty Devil rivers, north and south Caineville mesas and Factory Butte are part of the region, which borders Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks and four national forests.

The plan is open to public comment through Jan. 24, 2008. For information, visit www.blm .gov/ut/st/en/fo/richfield/planning.html

The BLM has scheduled six public meetings for the draft plan. All will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

* Richfield, Dec. 3

Snow College South Campus (Administration Building Rooms 147 B and E)

800 W. 200 South

* Panguitch, Dec. 6

Triple C Arena

50 E. 900 North

* Bicknell, Dec. 10

Wayne County Community Center

375 S. 400 East

* Manti, Dec. 11

City Building

55 South Main St.

* Salt Lake City, Dec. 12

City Library, fourth-floor meeting room

210 E. 400 South

* Junction, Dec. 13

Piute County Courthouse

550 N. Main St.