Shortly after the Bureau of Land Management released their decision for the travel plan to increase the miles of open routes in the San Rafael Desert in Utah from roughly 300 miles of routes to roughly 900 miles of routes, we were not surprised to learn that the wilderness groups filed an appeal of the decision.
We were surprised to learn that the same groups who perpetuate the false narrative that public lands are overrun with motorized recreation claimed the biggest reason trails should be closed in the San Rafael Desert was that the area was receiving such little use that trails were reclaiming back to nature. They claimed the trails were no longer “apparent on the ground.” They also claimed that because they received little use, the trails had no recreation value.
After talking to several local user groups in the area, I learned that the reason the area received little use wasn’t because the trails weren’t valuable. The route system in this area had been clouded by litigation for well over a decade by the wilderness groups. As such, the BLM was unwilling to appropriately sign the area. Maps – even those provided by BLM – were unreliable.
They highlighted Route 781 as a trail that had fully reclaimed to the point it should be closed. I spent several hours reviewing historic satellite imagery of this route and several of the others that had been closed. What I found is that going back to 1997 until 2019 when the BLM was making its final analysis, Route 781 was clearly visible from space.
I figured if the route could be seen by satellites from space, then surely it could be seen from the ground. During one of my several trips to the San Rafael Desert to perform field work, I confirmed that the route was indeed visible on the ground.
Not only was it visible. After walking the route, I quickly realized it was a spectacular route that drops from a bench down through a desert wash to an overlook of the San Rafael River. It included a small section that required traversing sandstone obstacles, which are few and far between in the San Rafael Desert compared to neighboring areas in Moab and the San Rafael Swell. In the area where the route crosses the sandstone, it is difficult to discern the route’s path (seen in picture below). This is common on sandstone features, but it hardly means the route has reclaimed. If anything, having a challenging feature significantly increases the recreation value of the route.
It struck me as one of the best undiscovered routes in the San Rafael Desert, and I documented the route for our defendant intervenor brief we were working on. I eventually chose to include it as one of the trails in our Lost Trails Guidebook once the courts rejected the wilderness groups’ initial request for a stay of the BLM decision.
Even though the decision wasn’t stayed, and the route was officially recognized as open, the wilderness groups still chose to appeal the decision to federal court. In Early 2022, these groups struck a backroom settlement deal with the BLM, and the BLM agreed to re-evaluate Raoute 781 along with 195 miles of other routes. They ultimately decided to close 120 miles of these routes – including Route 781.
BRC has appealed these closures, and we are still waiting for a ruling from the Interior Board of Land Appeals. At the heart of our appeal is that these routes are there. These routes provide incredible value to our members. Responsible use of these routes won’t hurt anything in this vast landscape that remains mostly untouched. Nevertheless, until we receive a final decision on our appeal the route is currently officially closed.
Furthermore, the BLM’s motion to dismiss our appeal claimed that the public doesn’t need these routes, because there are other routes. They claim we can’t prove our members have ever used these routes, nor do they have plans to use these routes – even though numerous BRC members have gotten their hands on the first volume of our Lost Trails Guidebook with plans to explore these roads less traveled.
Utlimately, the BLM’s field work was inaccurate and false. Government lawyers in Salt Lake are hardly the authorities on what constitutes a valuable recreation experience. Route 781 in the San Rafael Desert is a great route. It is a benefit to the public that it exists. It is a shame the BLM decided to close it and 120 miles of equally spectacular routes. For now we will have to wait to see what the Administrative Law Judge has to say about this. Once we’ve exhausted our administrative remedies we will have to decide if this is worth appealing to the Judicial Branch of our government.