The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 113: Desert Roadless Traveled
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Deserts have always been some of the best places to find wilderness solitude. But are some potential wilderness areas in central Utah getting overrun? This week on The WildeBeat; Desert Roadless Traveled.
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is program number one thirteen.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE: Like a lot of places, southern Utah has many areas that could qualify as wilderness. But some people want to use those lands in ways that would make them not wilderness. Kurt Repanshek lives in Utah, and is the creator of the National Parks Traveler web magazine. Kurt, welcome.
KURT REPANSHEK: Hi, Steve. Good to be here today.
STEVE: So, Kurt, what are these potential wilderness areas like?
KURT REPANSHEK: You know, southern Utah is an incredibly stunning landscape. It's rife with vistas, you know, that just beg to be explored, places like redrock canyons that twist here and lead you there. There are sandstone domes millions of years in the making that dominate both the background and the foreground of the landscape. Walk through this canyon country and draws and washes will lead you off into side canyons that just might reveal artifacts of ancient civilizations. Then, too, there are settings so serene and majestic that they beg both introspection and offer inspiration. But if you hike back into these magical and beautiful places, it might be hard now to hear the canyon wrens, the breezes, and perhaps the warning of a rattlesnake. Chances are those serene sounds will be obscured by the guttural whining of off-road vehicles, of ATVs, and dirt bikes.
KURT REPANSHEK: So ubiquitous have off-road vehicles become across southern Utah's canyon country that some believe they are overwhelming the landscape and inflicting long-lasting damage, not just to public lands in general but to public lands suitable for formal wilderness designation. Under the Wilderness Act of nineteen-sixty-four, only Congress can designate wilderness, and only lands that are primarily natural and largely untouched by human imprints are open to such designation. At the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a non-profit advocacy group based in Salt Lake City, conservation director Heidi McIntosh says the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, commonly referred to as the B-L-M, has failed to protect much of that landscape from off-road vehicles.
HEIDI MCINTOSH: In nineteen ninety eight, there were about twenty-thousand off road vehicles registered in Utah then. Now we've got over two-hundred-thousand and most people who watch this issue and are familiar with it believe that there are at least another two-hundred thousand that are in the state but not registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles, and then you've got a lot of riders who come in from Colorado, from California, Nevada, and Arizona, and so you're talking about in a relatively short period of time, half a million off-road riders, motorcycle riders, dirt bikers, and ATVs.
HEIDI MCINTOSH: ...That's what we're talking about, and during the same period of time the BLM has never stepped up to the plate and done what it's supposed to be doing in terms of designating trails, doing the environmental studies necessary to determine which trails would minimize environmental harm or minimize conflict with other use. BLM has created a management vacuum and these half-million vehicles have just driven right in.
KURT REPANSHEK: The lands McIntosh refers to run from the San Rafael Swell in central Utah all the way south to the one-point-nine-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that hugs the Arizona border and then east to the Colorado border. The BLM manages most of this landscape. Throughout Utah, the federal agency oversees nearly twenty-three million acres sliced into ten districts, eleven if you count the Grand Staircase Monument. Each of these districts might encompass two million or more acres. Across that sprawling acreage, typically there is only one law enforcement ranger to ensure that livestock are grazed properly, that roughnecks for the oil and gas industry stick to regulations, and that off-road vehicle enthusiasts don't stray off designated routes.
KURT REPANSHEK: The BLM's Price District holds more than two million acres, including the San Rafael Swell. That's a rugged swath of canyon lands created sixty million years ago when a boil of rock bubbled to the surface. The district's assistant field manager, Wayne Ludington, says off-road vehicle matters keep his lone law enforcement ranger busy.
WAYNE LUDINGTON: The greatest problem for our ranger probably is with the OHV community, and that's because of the great number that we have out there. He has been quite active in helping us to learn the best ways to identify to OHV users where they can and can't go, and to provide restrictions, or barriers out there to help direct them.
KURT REPANSHEK: Key areas of concern in the Swell, according to Ludington, are the Sid's Mountain unit and the Temple Mountain unit. Sid's Mountain is a high desert landscape of grasses, scrub, sagebrush, and cactus that's bordered by the San Rafael River and framed by soaring cliffs. It carries a wilderness study area designation, that means Congress could eventually grant it official wilderness designation. However, when the WSA, or wilderness study area, was created, four off-road vehicle routes were grandfathered into it. These days Ludington's law enforcement ranger stays busy making sure those who use those routes don't stray. Ludington believes his district has seen "excellent compliance," in part by relying on off-road vehicle groups to police themselves.
KURT REPANSHEK: While those at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are fairly happy with the BLM's efforts in the Swell, in general they believe off-road use in Utah is out of control. To drive home that point, Heidi McIntosh points to a study prepared for Utah's Division of Parks. It states that nearly forty percent of off-road vehicle riders like to head off the trail.
HEIDI MCINTOSH: I also want to recognize that there are some off-roaders who want to do the right thing, who want to just use their off-road vehicles to get out and see the country but they don't want to necessarily destroy it. There is that component. But again there is this huge component of people who are not obeying the rules and they know they're not obeying the rules. And if you're talking about forty percent of a half-a-million riders, I mean that's two-hundred-thousand riders in Utah who are not obeying the rules? That's huge.
KURT REPANSHEK: For those who head off trail, the stakes are huge, says Liz Thomas, who runs the alliance's Moab field office. They're huge for cultural resources, such as artifacts left behind by the Anasazi culture, also known as ancestral Puebloans, thousands of years ago. the stakes are also huge for the region's few riparian areas, and; huge for the landscape.
LIZ THOMAS: Southern Utah is a desert, and we have very few perennial streams, year-round streams, and the few that we have we now have off-road vehicles, you know, dirt bikes, and ATVs and bigger ones, Jeeps and Hummers, driving up creek beds, so certainly that's not good for these creeks and the macro invertebrates and fish that live in them, and the streambeds themselves. Southern Utah is blessed with probably some of the ...highest density of cultural resources, archaeological resources, in the United States and the BLM, by their own accounting, has inventoried less than six percent of these lands, and so these cultural resources are scattered everywhere and certainly off-road vehicle use can directly damage these resources, and BLM studies and independent archaeological studies confirm that just the increased motorized access to areas that have cultural resources, archaeological artifacts, are at a much higher risk for being vandalized and looted and just for inadvertent damages that happen.
KURT REPANSHEK: The BLM currently is preparing a number of resource management plans, documents that haven't been updated for twenty or thirty years, and through the revisions the agency hopes to come up with a solution that pleases both the off-road vehicle groups and those who favor wilderness protection. Again, here's Wayne Ludington:
WAYNE LUDINGTON: My philosophy has been both, that if we accommodate the OHVs by helping them to know what trails they're on, and by helping them to know where they're at on those trails, we then will have less of the OHVs who leave the trails, and who pioneer and go into places where they're not allowed. ... Although we're not opening up any additional trails, we're not giving them any more country to use, we are trying to make sure they know what trails they can use and that they know where they can go. The other part of that has been to work closely with both the wilderness advocates and the OHV people and have their input and knowledge of what's going on so we can balance the use in the area.
KURT REPANSHEK: For Liz Thomas, a measure of balance would ensure that the nine million wilderness-quality acres that lie within the BLM's twenty-three million-acre domain in Utah some day get a chance to gain wilderness designation.
LIZ THOMAS: There's over a hundred thousand miles miles of routes to drive on in Utah. You could drive four times around the Earth with a hundred thousand miles miles. I think there are plenty of places for folks to drive and ride and recreate with motorized vehicles... I think the scales are in fact tipping in off-road vehicles recreation's direction versus protecting wilderness. Nine million acres out of twenty three million is less than half of what's left, and I think we just feel strongly that we should try to protect what's left. Every acre of BLM land does not have to have a road through it. There needs to be a few places that are set aside for not just people who want to enjoy them, they want to get away from the crowds, but I mean we need some places for wildlife and we just need some places that are far enough from a road, or don't have roads in them, for future generations."
KURT REPANSHEK: We tried to contact the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which lobbies for more off-road access to public lands, but they didn't respond to our requests for an interview.
STEVE: These places sound amazing. What's the best way for us to get started exploring them?
KURT REPANSHEK: There are countless trailheads that will lead you into the San Rafael Swell and the canyon country surrounding Capital Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands national parks if you're planning to head out on foot. As for ORV travelers, right now exactly how the BLM will decide to manage these lands is up in the air. The agency currently is going through the public review process for many of its resource management plans for these areas, and it will be well into two thousand eight, or later, before final plans are adopted. Until then, if you're heading into this landscape, check with the BLM in Utah for maps clearly outlining where it's allowed to drive off-road.
STEVE: Kurt, I'd like to thank you so much for contributing this report.
KURT REPANSHEK: You're welcome, Steve.
STEVE: Do you have backcountry experiences in the Utah desert, or disturbing encounters with motorized backcountry traffic? We'd like you to share those with us, or any other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find links to more information about these areas, about the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and an extended version of this show, on our web site.
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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. You can help us help more folks to appreciate our wild public lands, by clicking on our support link to become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.
This has been The WildeBeat, program number one thirteen. Thank you for listening.
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Next time -- urban girls gone wild.