A federal judge recently ruled that Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument may not be used as an ATV playground, putting an end to nine years of heated disputes between off-road vehicle activists and equally dedicated conservationists. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Earthjustice acted as defendants in the case and Kane and Garfield counties, within which the monument lies, were plaintiffs.
The 1.9 million-acre monument, established as such in 1996 by President Clinton under the Antiquities Act, became the second largest monument in the continental United States and and is habitat for countless endangered species.
The Grand Staircase is one of many monuments, for which counties supportive of off-roading have invoked a 1866 mining statute called RS 2477 (a law that allows road construction over public lands), to counteract usage restrictions that monument status brings. Effectively, if the county can prove a road had been established before 1976, they have a shot at re-opening it to the public and, of course, for off-roading. In that spirit, horse trails, boulder-strewn washes, dried up creeks, and even hiking paths became possible ATV highways, sometimes even private property as we reported in our most recent issue.
The recent federal ruling puts ownership of these public lands firmly in federal hands, which hopefully means fewer 18" tires will be traversing (and destroying) the monument's unique ecosystem. But most likely, the ruling will also increase the ire of 4x4 activists dedicated to driving public lands, regardless of what's on them.
This marks one of the first times the federal government has stepped into the debate in favor of environmental conservation. Previously, the Bush administration loosened restrictions on off-roading in national parks and has repeatedly made it easier for counties to claim RS 2477 road rights.