FLAGSTAFF, Arizona - March 7 - The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) draft 20-year plan for overseeing the 2.8 million-acre region called the Arizona Strip-a remote, biologically diverse landscape stretching north of the Grand Canyon-closes to public comment on March 17, and raises some serious questions about the BLM's commitment to preserving the special resources of Grand Canyon-Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs National Monuments.
"This monster plan-for all its 3,000 pages-ignores the very reason these places were set aside in the first place and it disregards the public's desire to see them protected," says Jill Ozarski with The Wilderness Society. "Page after page, we're finding that the BLM is promoting more and more off-road vehicle (ORVs) use, rather than protecting the wildlife, ancient artifacts, and wild character of the Monuments."
"Grand Canyon-Parashant is wild and woolly with volcanoes and remnants of ancient dwellings that few have seen," says Charlie Neumann of Kanab, Utah. "BLM must preserve it for us all to enjoy as it is, with limited development."
The two new monuments were created in 2000 to preserve the magnificent geology, archaeology, and wildlife that distinguish this remote and wild part of the greater Grand Canyon ecosystem. However, BLM's plan sacrifices quiet recreation, wildlife, and irreplaceable cultural resources to ORVs-allowing almost 1,800 miles of ORV routes in the monuments, plus an additional 1,000 miles outside the monuments on other BLM lands that are part of the Strip.
"Our role is to provide the Bureau of Land Management with critical information about the diversity and density of archaeological sites at these Monuments," says archaeologist Peter Bungart of Flagstaff, Arizona. "Looting, vandalism, and even unintentional damage by vehicles are major problems at archaeological sites in this region, and let me be clear, it's going to take careful planning by the BLM to keep these sites protected in the long run."
Wildlife such as mountain lions, mule deer, pronghorn, and the threatened desert tortoise are also vulnerable. In their review of the BLM plan, the U.S. EPA recommended that that the proposal include more road closures in critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. The review also expressed concern that the BLM's proposal "would open nearly 9 times more acres of public lands to [cross-country OHV] use." and recommended that the BLM "eliminate open motorized and mechanized cross-country travel due to substantial impacts from this activity on soils, water resources, cultural resources and wildlife."
"The BLM has proposed protecting only 27% of the remaining lands with wilderness character in the Monuments," said Kim Crumbo of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. "There are already hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and routes open to dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, and other ORVs. There ought to be some wild places where people and wildlife can escape from noise and pollution."
Recreational use of the Arizona Strip will increase dramatically over the 20-year life of the plan as the population of the surrounding 5 counties doubles with the addition of 1.4 million new residents by 2020. At the same time, the BLM budget has decreased each year for the last 5 years, and already there are only 3 law enforcement rangers responsible for the entire Arizona Strip, an area three times the size of Rhode Island. Given the population explosion in the West and the Monuments' growing popularity, this 20-year management plan will determine the future of wildlife and other resources in the Monuments.
In addition, the draft plan goes so far as to leave almost 96 percent of adjacent non-Monument lands open for possible oil and gas drilling, even though the plan itself acknowledges, "known oil and gas resources are not significant within the Planning Area, and no economic occurrences of oil or gas have been encountered to date."
During the 2002 scoping phase for the monuments, more than 89 percent of public comments asked for increased protection of the Arizona Strip's natural and cultural features, including its wild character, solitude, wildlife, and archaeological sites. In addition, more than 85 percent of the comments cited the destruction that ORVs can cause, and asked for road closures or for new restrictions on ORV travel within the monuments.
The public has until March 17 to submit formal comments to the Bureau of Land Management on the draft plans for Grand Canyon-Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs National Monuments, and the Arizona Strip lands. Comments can be directed to: Diana Hawkes and Planning Team, Arizona Strip District Office, 345 East Riverside Drive, St.George, Utah 84790, or emailed to Arizona_Strip@blm.gov.