The federal government’s plan to manage two national monuments in the Arizona Strip doesn’t sufficiently protect the environment or endangered species, a group of conservation organizations told a judge Wednesday.
Off-road vehicle use and grazing in the Grand Canyon-Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs national monuments are destroying the landscape, the groups argued before a U.S. District Court judge. The four-wheel-drive roads have gouged the desert, ruining archaeological sites, damaging plants and threatening habitat of the endangered desert tortoise, the groups contend.
A 2009 lawsuit filed by the Wilderness Society, Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council and National Trust for Historic Preservation challenges the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s plans for the monuments. The groups were in court Wednesday asking Judge Paul G. Rosenblatt to issue a summary judgment forcing the agency to rewrite its plan rather than have the case go to trial.
James Angell, a lawyer for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm representing the groups, said historic artifacts are being “effectively destroyed for the future.”
The suit was combined with another by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity that claims the use of lead ammunition by hunters is poisoning species like the California condor.
The lands were designated by former President Bill Clinton shortly before he left office in 2000.
The designation made the BLM responsible for protecting and conserving the tracts of land, but the environmental groups claim the agency hasn’t managed the areas any differently than traditional general-use BLM lands.
A lawyer representing the BLM said the agency’s plan has taken environmental concerns into account and that it is up to the agency how to interpret the presidential proclamation.
“The national monuments are set aside for protection,” Luther Hajek said.
One of the major issues in the case deals with the definition of a road and whether or not the agency would develop a plan to protect the land and animals affected by roads.
Hajek said the BLM did a complete inventory of the roads within the monuments and said that according to “available scientific evidence” the pathways wouldn’t significantly harm the land or endangered species.
“There are plans in place to protect those resources,” Hajek said.
But Angell said the BLM’s plan recognizes that the roads create a moderate impact, which he defined as a negative impact to the environment that changes its character.
“Our debate is, is that OK under the [presidential] proclamation,” Angell said. “You need clear plans and clear objectives.”
Rosenblatt didn’t make an immediate ruling but said he would make the decision as soon as possible.
Lawyers for the environmental organizations said they hope the case can at least start a dialogue between the agencies and the public over how best to manage the monuments.
“We don’t want to have to use a hammer yet,” said Adam Keats, the lawyer representing the Center for Biological Diversity.