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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Do Road Closures Hurt Campers? An Off-Road Advocacy Group Thinks So And Wants Them To Fight Back

A photo of public land in San Juan County.
Courtesy of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
The Bureau of Land Management recently closed 50 miles of dirt roads on public land in northern San Juan County, including the one pictured above.

The Bureau of Land Management recently completed a travel management plan for the Canyon Rims Recreation Area that will close around 50 miles of road within its almost 91,000-acre boundaries in northern San Juan County.

“The dispersed camping, overlanding, rooftop tent, Subaru, van-life people — that’s who got hurt the most [by the plan], and they don’t even know it,” said Ben Burr, policy director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an off-roading advocacy group.

Burr’s group is telling campers they need to organize and fight back against road closures, as the BLM revises 13 travel management plans on public land across Utah. If they don’t, he said they could lose access to thousands of camping spots over the next decade.

“Whether they like it or not, they share a lot of common interests with the side-by-side crowd,” he said.

But the conservation group that pushed for the closures said they are a necessary part of balancing recreation and conservation on public lands and won’t have a big impact on campers.

“There are still 200-plus miles of routes within the Canyon Rims [travel management area], and thousands of miles of routes in southern Utah where there is room for dispersed camping,” said Laura Peterson, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

A map of Canyon Rims.
Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management
The red routes are closed, the blue are open, and the green are open for office and administrative use only.

She added that many of the routes that were closed were “reclaiming,” or returning to their natural state because of lack of use, while others were redundant, or went to the same place as other roads that remain open.

SUWA and other conservation groups sued the BLM over travel plans completed in 2008 for more than 11 million acres of public land in southern and eastern Utah that the group said favored motorized recreation over other interests. The parties settled in 2017, and the BLM agreed to revise travel management plans for 13 areas by 2025.

“It’s important to note that the BLM does have a legal duty under [the Federal Land Policy and Management Act] to minimize damage to soils and vegetation and wildlife and cultural sites,” Peterson said. “They cannot manage for just motorized recreation, which is what the Blue Ribbon Coalition wants.”

But Burr says SUWA’s goal is to eliminate off-road recreation on public lands in Utah, and that will directly impact people who like to camp on public lands. So, he wants to build a coalition to fight back.

“The dispersed camping crowd is massive, and when they realize their own strength they will be a major force in the management space,” he said. “I’m happy to help them.”

The Canyon Rims plan is the second management plan to be completed under the settlement.

The Blue Ribbon Coalition appealed the closures and asked the BLM to stay the decision so it doesn’t go into effect until the appeal is resolved.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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