Detailed Analysis of SUWA v DOI Settlement — Part 3 — Monitoring as a Tool for Closure

The pending settlement includes a mandate to perform extensive “monitoring” prior, during and after the travel planning process in Natural Areas, Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), and “WC areas” (areas managed for Wilderness Characteristics). The type of monitoring mandated represents a huge tactical victory for the environmental litigants who have filed numerous lawsuits seeking to drastically reduce motorized routes.

Background discussion
We put the term monitoring in quotes because the process that the pending settlement describes has little or nothing to do with the type of monitoring used by professional recreation managers.

Monitoring is required by agency regulations and has been a topic of concern for land managers as well as recreational groups for many years. Normally, professional recreation managers use a concept known as “limits of acceptable change” as the key component of any monitoring effort. The limits of acceptable change are based on objective criteria that are related to management objectives, resources and user expectations. Recreation managers also use this monitoring to budget and prioritize maintenance and/or enforcement activities.

Instead, the settlement will require BLM to survey (“monitor”) specific routes for “visually-apparent unauthorized surface disturbances off routes” as well as “visually-apparent damage” to public lands resources caused by motorized vehicle use. (Paragraph 20(a) – Page 14)

When the same group of environmental litigants filed a lawsuit in 1999, BLM staff working out of the Price Field Office implemented something similar. Essentially, a BLM employee drives or walks along a route and whenever a vehicle track (i.e. visually-apparent unauthorized surface disturbance) is noticed outside the disturbed portion of the route, a photo, GIS coordinates, and a “narrative” is recorded.

This “monitoring” resulted in thousands of pages of photos and reports on just four routes in the Sids Mountain WSA. According to staff it took over 3 days to conduct the effort on less than 27 miles.

It was abandoned after BLM’s State Office determined such monitoring efforts were not practical or sustainable and provided little in the way of objective information regarding route conditions, impacts to resources or compliance with the travel plan.

The settlement mandates the BLM resurrect this flawed program and requires the following:
BLM will document by site photography and written narrative each disturbance and damage site. At a minimum, BLM will document the following information: (1) the geospatial coordinate of the site of disturbance or damage; (2) the route number or other identifier where the disturbance or damage was observed, the date of the physical inspection, the TMA in which the inspection took place, and the name of the inspector; (3) the observed usage intensity (i.e., none, light, medium, or heavy); (4) the apparent geographic extent of the disturbance or damage; and (5), if possible, (a) the apparent type of motorized vehicle(s) that caused the disturbance or damage, (b) the apparent purpose of the disturbance (e.g., short spur, dispersed camping, play area, or inadvertent travel), and (c) the type of public land resource damaged by motorized vehicle use. (Paragraph 20 – Pages 14-16)

The settlement requires the BLM to repeat the monitoring effort at least one time per year during the planning process.

The settlement also allows exclusive opportunity for parties to the settlement to submit “credible information that any new visually-apparent unauthorized surface disturbances off routes or visually apparent damage to public lands resources caused by motorized vehicle use” to the BLM. The settlement then mandates that “subject to available personnel and passable route conditions, inspect that portion of the route.” This information must be incorporated into the “monitoring” effort. (Paragraph 22 – Pages 17-18) (See next section.)

After BLM completes its baseline monitoring report the pending settlement requires the agency repeat the process at least one time per year.

Thankfully, the settlement does not mandate that the new, extreme “monitoring” protocols be continued beyond this round of travel planning. However, it is cause for concern because future monitoring will be prescribed in the new travel plan’s final decision.