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They call it a listening session, but will anyone hear?

by mike reberg

Right about now the Bureau of Land Management's touring production of "Let's make an ORV Deal" is coming to an auditorium near you. And once again conservation-minded people will offer advice to BLM officials about how they should manage off-road vehicles on public lands. Two meetings in Utah early this month, called "listening sessions" by the BLM, allowed the public to comment about an issue that has become a serious national component of the public lands debate.

These listening sessions are the BLM and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's late-in-the-game attempt to act… or at least give the perception of acting. With the growing likelihood that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will be running agencies like the BLM in a few short months, it all has the feel of being too much, too little, too-late. The jury is out, but I don't advise holding your breath for real solutions any time soon.

In January, the agency (managers of 23 million acres in Utah) sent out a press release announcing its plan to create a national strategy to address the issue of off-road vehicle activity on America's public land managed by the BLM. Babbitt, following the release, admitted in at least one national newspaper his agency has been "slow to respond" to the growing, negative impacts off-road vehicle activity (some of it improper and downright illegal) is having on national public lands.

Slow to respond is an understatement. For a decade now, off-road vehicle activity has skyrocketed in the West. Add to that the increasing popularity of snowmobiles and small watercraft; and the numbers of gas powered, oil leaking "thrill" vehicles are staggering. Many individuals and groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance see illegal off-road vehicle activity as the newest and biggest threat to the goal of setting aside pristine tracks of redrock desert country as federally designated wilderness.

In Utah, ORV use numbers have been astonishing as well. Maybe it's the affluence of the 1990s and the relatively low cost of ATVs and dirt bikes, but the number of registered off-road vehicles tripled during the past decade. More riders push further into the few remaining wild places. In Utah, 90 percent of all 23 million acres of BLM managed land, is open in some way to off-road vehicles. It's been that way for years.

And always, there is a minority percentage of these ORV riders who could care less about the rules and regulations governing off-road vehicles. They claim America's public lands in Utah as their personal playground, to do with as they will. Their proximity to these lands, they will tell you, gives them special privilege to use them how they see fit. ORV user organizations, like Utah Shared Access Alliance (USA-ALL, cute huh?), chant their enemic mantra of "local control, education and self-policing is best." With most of Utah's BLM lands open to them, they've got it good right now. They don't want change. But for the renegade percentage of riders, any control is too much. So when the Utah Shared Access Alliance spikes the debate by wrongly claiming riders won't have anywhere to ride because they're being locked out of federal public land, they incite the off-road hooligans to further acts of off-road vandalism.

This problem compounds itself with the increase in the numbers of riders on Utah's public lands. For every new group of riders, a percentage of them have no ethic. Besides, when was the last time anyone saw the Utah Shared Access Alliance confiscate some off-road vandal's rig after cutting an illegal trail on a stretch of crypto biotic soil. So much for self-policing.

In addition to these two-stoke vandals, there is another group of riders who just don't know any better, and would follow rules and regulations if the BLM enforced them. These problems are enhanced by the ongoing inaction of local BLM managers and the tacit support these individuals have from many Utah politicians.

Following months of study, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance released a report last summer addressing the impacts that illegal ORV activity is having on wild and scenic lands in Utah. The BLM has, for years, compiled reports that document the same thing.

SUWA, as part of its study, asked the Utah office of the BLM to act, using existing rules and regulations and current mandates, to close certain routes and better regulate existing ones. The BLM failed to respond. In the end SUWA and a group of conservation organizations, filed suit in federal court against the BLM, demanding that agency do its job. That suit is pending and the BLM is vigorously defending itself.

But in the meantime, in part because other organizations like SUWA in other states are gearing up for similar suits, the BLM is asking for input on a national strategy. And eight months after its announced plans to create a strategy, Utahans gets a chance to make comment...eight months. In the twilight of Babbitt's tenure as Interior Secretary, with a few short months to go, slow to respond is truly an understatement. Babbitt can't take all the blame for this eight-month gap. Within days of the announcement, Utah Republican congressman Jim Hansen tried to monkey wrench the process, and in fact, delayed the national strategy's beginning. "Gentleman Jim" has never met a possible conservation plan he could swallow.

But for seven years prior, Babbitt has done little. Even with two presidential executive orders on the books that span 25 years or more, Babbitt has disappointed. Even with conservation groups providing ongoing documentation about illegal trail cutting, wildlife displacement, soil erosion and damage to fragile riparian areas, this so-called conservation minded Secretary of the Interior has mostly ignored public lands issues on BLM lands.

Truth be told, Babbitt has been a tremendous disappointment for the conservation community, especially when it comes to the Bureau of Land Management. For all the national talk about a conservation legacy being left by President Clinton and Bruce Babbitt, the reality is little has been done. And protection of public lands will go down on many conservationists' minds as another missed opportunity of the Clinton presidency. Sure, a few national monuments have been put into place, some areas have been granted additional protective designations, but on the margins, not much has changed on BLM managed lands.

Conservationists will, just the same, provide input and offer solutions at these listening sessions. It's really quite simple in Utah. Restrict off-road vehicle use on the remaining BLM roadless areas in Utah, and keep riders on the leftover 100,000 miles of trails… more trails than anyone could ride in a lifetime.

It's quite simple. You've just got to wonder if anyone is really listening.