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Utah losing a wide-open spot for off-roading

Popular pastime ending due to discovery of protected cactus
/ Source: The Associated Press

For off-roaders, few places are as good as the badlands around Factory Butte, where the terrain seems perfectly suited for a knobby rubber tire.

"If ever there was a place God created for off-road recreation, Factory Butte is it," said Michael Swenson, executive director of the Utah Shared Access Alliance.

This Wild West of off-road travel may not last long, however. The Bureau of Land Management is moving to impose regulations as early as September, the start of riding season, on some of the baddest of the West's badlands, about 180 miles south of Salt Lake City.

The decision chips away at Utah's standing as one of the last Western states where BLM lands are still largely open to cross-country travel.

"Times have changed," Cornell Christensen, a bureau field manager, who has been watching all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes crawl over the nearly 200,000-acre Factory Butte district like an army of ants. "We've had open areas for so long, people can just go and go."

It wasn't noise, traffic, ruts or erosion that forced BLM, after years of pressure from conservation groups, to take a hard look at drawing boundaries here on off-road travel. Instead, it's two little-known, delicate species of cacti classified years ago as threatened or endangered and only recently discovered around Factory Butte.

"The law is we have to protect those plants," said Christensen.

A decision will be made by higher-ups at the Interior Department, where the review could take as little as two weeks or as many as six months, he said, depending on how the politics play out.

The restrictions could take the form of designated routes, areas kept off limits and open "play" areas such as a place riders call Swing Arm City, which is defined by a natural basin along State Route 24. Off-road advocates counter that in a landscape with few natural barriers, it will be impractical to draw any boundaries.

Swenson said regulation should be the exception, not the rule, for the barren moonscape-like land around Factory Butte, a 1,500-foot-tall monolith that looks vaguely industrial. His group advocates management with a light touch and accuses BLM of lurching from a hands-off policy in Utah to strict regulation of its lands.

"The BLM has failed miserably to manage ATV use," Swenson said. "Now they're behind the eight-ball, and their knee-jerk reaction is to close areas."

Christensen said most of the cacti were found in areas not often visited often by off-roaders, "but they want everything kept open."

It's easy to see why. The badlands, which are especially suited for dirt bikes, consist of rolling hills of wind-sculpted Mancos shale soil alternating with shallow ravines. Riders worship the lift or bounce their machines get from the spongy, dry soil, comparing it to powder skiing. They say their tracks mostly get washed away by summer monsoons.

The scenery is another draw. It's one of the largest, most spectacular badlands on the Colorado plateau, geologists at Brigham Young University determined in 1980, when all-terrain vehicles were still a novelty with three wheels.

It wasn't until 1986 that Honda ushered in a more stable, four-wheel ATV, and today tens of thousands of these machines and dirt bikes roam Utah's public lands. Many riders come from Colorado and California, where the BLM long ago clamped down on off-road travel.

Utah is one of the last Western states still largely wide-open for travel on public lands. The BLM controls nearly half of Utah, yet has made an effort to designate routes on only 3 million of its 23 million acres of land, though increasingly the rest is being marked off-limits to any motorized travel. In all, Utah still offers more than 70,000 miles of dirt roads, tracks and trails.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance wants the Factory Butte area for part of a larger wilderness complex, and cited the distinctive, forbidding landscape as a reason. Now it's the cacti that are making a difference.

Both species can grow in the fine-textured alkaline soils.

One can be hard to find. The Wright fishhook - a small, barrel-shaped cactus with cream-colored flowers - retracts or shrinks nearly underground during winter, popping back up in spring. "It's a survival technique," said Heather Barnes, a botanist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This region of south-central Utah also holds pockets of Winkler cactus, a small, leafless, globe-shaped succulent with pink flowers. It was listed in 1998 by the Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species; the rarer Wright fishhook was classified as endangered in 1979.

Christensen said a survey that BLM commissioned last spring found both species in the Factory Butte area. Once they were discovered, BLM became obligated to protect them.

"We're just trying to do the right thing," Christensen said. "We know we got some damage to the cactus."

On the Net:

Bureau of Land Management:

Fish and Wildlife Service:

Utah Shared Access Alliance: