I would love to believe the Aug. 29 article submitted by Emery County, Here’s What the Emery County Public Lands Bill Means for Motorized Recreation. Unfortunately, after 17 years of maintaining off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails, educating users to ride responsibly, and advocating for diverse recreation opportunities, I know better. The first 90 percent of the Emery County article consists of background information. The last 10 percent addresses the current bill by stating:
“Every version of the map associated with the land use bill has included the routes designated open in the 2003 and 2008 plans. Including the routes on the map in HR 5727 is a big deal. This is where the bill has some teeth regarding protection of motorized roads and trails… Put another way, with the passage of the Emery County Public Lands Bill, the roads and trails that are currently open will have the protection of congress, by federal law.”
Granted, the text of previous Emery County bills referred to the map’s routes by “codifying” them, in which Congress would have directed BLM to keep the San Rafael Swell routes open in perpetuity, except in cases of significant impact which allow for mitigation / temporary closure / permanent relocation as necessary. In contrast, the current bill doesn’t refer to the map’s routes and, although the bill’s map legend refers to the routes as “cherry stems” (to be exempt from the Swell’s National Conservation Area (NCA) management), it would still leave them subject to regular BLM management (which can open or close routes anytime through NEPA). In fact, an Emery County representative acknowledged this reality when questioned during a Congressional subcommittee hearing back in June. Further, since at least early August, Emery County has planned to take away the “cherry stem” consolation prize in favor of switching the Swell’s designation from NCA to National Recreation Area (NRA). I welcome this change, since the “cherry stem” tactic was dubious and since an NRA designation would be more accommodating of OHVs. Nevertheless, if the forthcoming bill doesn’t codify or “cherry stem” the routes, then their presence on the bill’s map is of no legal significance, despite the Emery County article’s claims of the map’s routes being a “big deal,” having “teeth,” and providing “the protection of congress.”
Without the prize of codifying routes, nor the consolation prize of “cherry stemming” them, there still could be a path forward for the Emery County bill in form of four changes. First, establish a policy of “no net loss” of OHV access within the NRA, which would simply prevent the aggregate of riding opportunities from being eroded by the bill’s various designations (such as Wilderness or Wild and Scenic River). Second, remove the bill’s current language that prohibits any and all building of new motorized routes, which would allow the BLM through NEPA to at least consider relocating a route, adding a link for connectivity, or constructing a new route for pedal-assist bicycles. Otherwise, prohibiting the planning of new trails without prohibiting the closure of old ones would be like a ratchet strap that lacks any release mechanism. Third, clarify that the NRA’s recreational purpose includes OHV use on motorcycle, ATV, and 4WD trails. While this clarification may seem self-evident, history has proven that land managers can be pressured into excluding OHV use from everywhere but a few token routes. Fourth, remove the bill’s current language that terminates the NRA’s Resource Advisory Council (RAC) one year after approval of the NRA’s management plan. Whether it be for representatives of an
OHV group or a county government, RACs give a voice to those who are most familiar with an area and most affected by its management, which remains important no matter how many years have passed.
When meeting with Emery County staff in Castle Dale, I was told that removing the RAC’s termination language is a “non-starter” discussion in Congress. Most existing RACs have no such termination clause, so OHV groups have continued asking for this longevity in the Emery County bill, and I am optimistic about the forthcoming bill. Likewise I was told that “no net loss” would kill the bill because it requires setting a new precedent in Congress, yet it’s only new because this is the first time we’ve had to ask for a consolation prize of the previous consolation prize, so Emery County shouldn’t assume the worst. Besides, if new language is so bad, then they should focus on removing the language preemptively prohibiting new routes because you won’t find it in the legislation that established other NCAs or NRAs.
All four of these requested changes are the reasonable result of compromise after compromise. This set of changes wouldn’t provide OHV riders with the certainty that preservationists get from the Emery County bill, but it would give us a bit of leverage to counterbalance all the new federal designations. If you agree, then share these concerns with your county, state, and federal representatives. During this last week of September, the House and Senate sponsors are finalizing a new version of the bill, so the time to act is now.
Clif Koontz is the Executive Director of Ride with Respect, a nonprofit organization that conserves shared-use trails and their surroundings.