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A supreme standoff

A supreme standoff
An advocacy group is using images such as this to bolster its case in a lawsuit against the Interior Department. (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance)
Utah's deserts and red-rock canyons are an intoxicating dose of wilderness for urban refugees and tourists from the world over, many of whom arrive riding in or on off-road vehicles.

As debate over wilderness protection intensifies in the West, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken under consideration a lawsuit that will determine whether the Bureau of Land Management is doing enough to protect areas of Utah that may be worthy of official wilderness status.

Environmentalists say that some of Utah's most pristine real estate is being etched with tire tracks. About 100,000 quad-runners, motorcycles and three-wheelers are registered in the state, not counting off-road vehicles coming from California and neighboring states. The suit argues that the agency has a legal obligation to protect these "wilderness study areas" from being degraded until Congress decides on the designation.

The case could bolster wilderness protection and clarify when federal agencies, in general, are liable for failing to follow an act of Congress. The court listened to oral arguments in the case last week, and a final decision is expected by July.

Brian Hawthorne of the Pocatello, Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition, which is made up largely of off-road vehicle makers, dealers and riders, said he's aware of environmental concerns. But he said off-road vehicles were allowed on some of the lands before they were identified as possible wilderness areas and that vehicle access should continue.

"We're not insensitive to the impacts of our use," Hawthorne said. "Motorized vehicles should be allowed in these areas on existing trails. They shouldn't be allowed to go willy-nilly. The point that gets lost is how much land has already been closed" to off-road vehicles.

But environmentalists say riders are colonizing land that Congress determined should be studied for possible inclusion as wilderness, a designation that carries protections so strict that the lands must be free of roads and all mechanized vehicles including bicycles, and managed to preserve their wild character. The BLM has yet to act on that mandate.

"The BLM has been studying these lands for 20 years. Their inaction is leading to impairment," said Larry Young, executive officer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the groups that brought the suit in 1999. "It has to do with whether a land management agency can be held accountable for failure to manage lands."

During oral arguments on March 29, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was disturbed by photos of scarred dunes, canyons and forests. Conservationists say wilderness study areas such as Moquith Mountain, Sids Mountain, Parunuweap and Behind the Rocks, among other places in Utah, are being overrun by vehicles. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist expressed concern that environmentalists might be trying to run a federal agency.

The case could turn on how the court interprets the Administrative Procedure Act, which allows courts to compel federal agencies to act if they fail to do their job. The BLM argued successfully in a lower court that the law did not apply in this case, but environmental groups won on appeal. The decision to be rendered in the Utah case could be important in determining how much authority a court has to manage a federal agency.

The BLM argues that the lawsuit is premature because no final decision has been reached on what the fate of these wild lands should be. Environmentalists argue that the delay by the BLM means use of the land is being determined de facto by off-road enthusiasts.

The BLM and the Department of Justice declined to comment on the case. BLM manages 261 million acres of land, including 3.3 million acres of wilderness study areas in Utah.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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