Salt Lake City, UT – Recreation advocacy organizations the BlueRibbon Coalition/Sharetrails.org, Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition and Trails Preservation Alliance announced they have joined in an agreement which would settle nearly decade-long lawsuits over management of Utah public lands.
The proposed settlement agreement was filed in U.S. District Court in Utah, and governs Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversight of lands in six Utah field offices. The other parties entering the settlement include BLM and numerous preservationist plaintiffs led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The parties have issued a joint statement. Other parties in the case, including two groups of energy companies and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), did not sign the settlement but do not object to it. Two intervenor groups, San Juan/Kane Counties and the State of Utah along with six other counties, have indicated they will object.
"Settlement presents unique challenges in a suit of this nature," observed Paul Turcke, attorney for the intervening recreation groups. "Our system is designed to encourage and support settlement. When the primary parties want to settle a lawsuit, an intervenor faces a tough choice—actively negotiate to improve the settlement terms or stand on the outside and object. The law heavily favors settlement and objecting is a good way to say what constituents want to hear, but usually a bad way to meaningfully advance their interests."
The negotiation process was conducted in strict confidentiality overseen by the Tenth Circuit Mediation Office. Closely involved in the negotiations were experienced and trusted Utah contacts, including past and present BlueRibbon Board members and representatives of Utah groups like the Utah 4 Wheel Drive Association and Ride With Respect.
"We worked very hard, spent many hours and a few sleepless nights in this process," explained Glen Zumwalt of Leeds, UT, who participated on the organizations' negotiating team. "Our active participation worked to the benefit of many public lands users. In the end, we made enough changes to make this agreement much more acceptable than complying with the Court's ruling. Signing on to the agreement was the only way to make the changes we brought to the table stick."
"It is particularly important to understand the terms and unique advantages of this proposed settlement," added Clif Koontz from Moab, UT. He outlined some of these elements:
- The settlement does not require "temporary" closure of any route or area;
- It specifies where and when BLM will perform travel planning, in what BLM considers a manageable schedule, far preferable to court-ordered deadlines across entire field offices;
- The identified procedures improve opportunities for public engagement and are justifiably designed to produce more defensible decisions;
- All parties and the public retain full rights to participate in, and challenge the final outcome of, the new travel plans;
- It does not dictate results—BLM retains its full discretion to make final decisions affecting access under the agreement;
- The settlement only takes effect if the Court agrees to vacate the decisions made against the Richfield plans. This means those decisions will no longer exist;
- The Plaintiffs have agreed the Court retains jurisdiction only to enforce certain deadlines in the agreement. As to other components of the agreement, Plaintiffs commit to a "meet and confer" process with the State Director, in which all parties to the settlement are entitled to participate;
- The settlement does not affect the validity of any R.S. 2477 assertion;
- The settlement does not impose any travel planning obligations in the Monticello Field Office including San Juan County, and SUWA dismisses its complaint against the 2008 Monticello plans.
"The settlement is by no means perfect," Koontz reflected. "But it outlines a lawful and reasonable planning solution and alternative to years of further litigation. All parties made concessions that they must feel are offset by sufficient benefits."
"Some will wonder, ‘Why would we do this, especially after the election’?" Turcke said. "We are cautiously optimistic that recreation management will be a priority with the incoming Administration. The Court has already rejected the template used to build the challenged 2008 plans. We choose to focus on working with BLM rather than going for broke defending the Vernal, Price, Moab, Kanab and Monticello travel plans before the Court."
"We are certainly concerned that respected parties and colleagues object to this settlement," Turcke added. "We have taken decisive yet solitary action in similar litigation that was ultimately vindicated in a law-making unanimous Supreme Court decision. We know how to fight and have fought successfully. Effective leaders must often weather discomfort and employ creativity. We are confident that we are choosing the best path here for the OHV community."
A copy of the settlement agreement can be viewed here.