Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2004 > World Reports

World Reports

Case Dismissed: Land Pays the Price

Columnist Al Knight of the Denver Post wrote a piece on June 16, 2004 entitled “A Win for Gale Norton,” in regard to the lawsuit Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance et al. He wrote that although the Interior Secretary Gale Norton has in the past been “pictured as a Westerner all too willing to sell out the interests of the West,” we must now “give some credit where credit is clearly due” for her win in this lawsuit.

Congratulations, Gale.

This lawsuit was an appeal to overturn a previous decision that non-profit organizations could sue federal land management agencies for unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed action. The action desired by the enviros? Manage the uncurbed usage of off-road vehicles (ORVs) on federal land.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency named specifically in the lawsuit for its failure to protect its land from ORV use, manages 23 million acres of federal property in Utah. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and more than a dozen other plaintiffs sued the agency and Norton when repeated attempts to get the BLM to regulate ORVs went unheeded. The judge’s decision ultimately states that federal land management organizations can be held accountable only if they take action. Better all around for the BLM to do nothing.

Way to go, Gale.

Throughout BLM land in Canyon Country, signs warn of the importance of staying on trail. Cryptobiotic soil crust, the collection of cyanobacteria, lichens, and mosses that holds the loose, sandy soil in place, is invisible to the naked eye until it reaches maturity, when it resembles crushed Oreo cookies. Crypto, as it’s affectionately called by rangers in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, makes up approximately 70-80 percent of all living ground cover in the Colorado Plateau. A study by Jayne Belnap of the US Geological Survey found that cryptobiotic soil crust can take as long at 5,000-10,000 years to reach maturity in the arid Utah desert.

Awareness of cryptobiotic soil is common in canyon country. Hikers, cyclists and campers are all repeatedly warned of the importance of staying on trail. Public service announcements on the local radio stations stress the importance of maintaining the stability of an unstable landscape by sticking to trails. Signs are posted on most federal properties warning of the dangers of even a single footstep off trail. Once the crust is destroyed, the sandy soil beneath can be tossed in the wind and land on mature crust, smothering it. Belnap writes, “When crusts in sandy areas are broken during dry periods, previously stable areas can become moving sand dunes in a matter of years.”

Apparently the BLM believes that while cyclists and hikers can do damage, off-road vehicles do not. Off-road vehicles racing over sand dunes in backcountry, creating scars in the landscape, and a domino effect of damaged crypto can’t really be a problem, can it?

On the BLM website, guidelines for cyclists include: “Riding cross-country, taking shortcuts, and play riding around campsites damages plants and soils. Don't be a trail pioneer by leaving a poorly chosen path for others to follow.”

Good advice. Perhaps the BLM might benefit from more of its own: “If you don’t know what cryptobiotic soil crust looks like, ask someone to point it out!”

Molly McCluskey is a former volunteer park ranger at Arches National Park. Her work has appeared in numerous publications. She is currently writing a follow-up book to Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.


Email this article to a friend.

Write to the editor about this article.

Comments are closed for this post


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!