It was 2:00 a.m. when I finally crashed on Tuesday, November 23. I had spent a marathon session of reviewing previous appeals of Bureau of Land Management Travel Plans, public comments, route reports, portions of the administrative record, BLM regulations, BLM handbooks, and by the time 2:00 a.m. rolled around, I had clocked close to 14 hours in one day of deep-focus work preparing an appeal of the Bureau of Land Management’s final travel plan for the Black Canyon Corridor in Arizona. Although this sounds on the surface like the last minute scrambling of procrastination, in reality it was the fruition of almost a month of work spent assembling the right team to appeal this decision. This was the final sprint to the finish line in a fight we had to win.
The Black Canyon Corridor is an area of land managed by the Hassayampa Field Office of the BLM that is located north of Phoenix near Black Canyon City. The area is used extensively for off-road recreation. There are numerous dispersed camping sites. Horseback riding and hiking are popular in the area. It is also an internationally recognized area for world-class rock crawling. I learned about the BLM’s final decision for their travel plan while attending the annual board meeting for BlueRibbon Coalition. In fact, I was attending the annual meeting of the North American Motorized Recreation Council (NAMRC) held during the SEMA Show in Las Vegas on November 1 when news of the decision started breaking on my social media feeds. Of all things, we were discussing how off-road recreation organizations could be more unified in fighting for our access.
I was sitting next to BRC board member and West Virginia State Senator Mark Maynard, who is one of the nation’s strongest supporters of off-road recreation. I said to Mark, “Instead of talking about unity, let’s do unity.”
A quick overview of the plan showed that the BLM was planning to close 57% of the routes in the area, which would result in 298 miles of closures. They had picked an alternative that would be devastating for all forms of recreation access, and it was clear in an instant we would need to challenge this decision. I raised my hand and offered to use this recently released plan as a case study for how we could work together to challenge a bad decision from the BLM. Rebecca Antle is a BRC board member who is also affiliated with NAMRC, but her labor of love is reflected in her years of dedicated service to the Arizona State Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs. As we reviewed the plan details in the NAMRC meeting, it was clear that Becky had been extensively involved in the Black Canyon Corridor Plan. Her involvement was so extensive, a union of BRC and ASA4WDC would have been sufficient to appeal the decision.
But simply appealing the decision wasn’t the point. The point was to see if we could get a strong union of outdoor recreation advocates to join forces and challenge this decision in strength. Our brief exercise during the NAMRC meeting ended with numerous groups across the nation committing to be part of this effort to help our allies in Arizona once the time was right. I left the meeting energized to find a core group of individuals and groups who would have strong standing to challenge this decision and get an appeal filed by the appeal deadline. Once the appeal was filed by groups with adequate legal standing, we would build a national campaign to rally supporters across the nation to mount a serious challenge to this plan.
As I drove home from Las Vegas on the evening of Monday, November 1, I spent the entire drive talking on the phone with Kevin Allard from Arizona Backcountry Explorers. It was from his site that I first learned about the plan, and I knew we would want his extensive network of outdoor enthusiasts in Arizona to be part of this effort. We identified other potential allies. We identified the local elected officials that would need to be engaged by their Arizona constituents. We also talked extensively about the Department of Interior’s appeal process with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, so that we could be on the same page on how to successfully navigate a process that almost seems designed to make it easy for IBLA to dismiss legitimate appeals on technicalities.
My next contact was with my longtime friend, Shannon Poe, who is the President of the American Mining Rights Association. We have been discussing for years how we can unite the small-scale mining claim owners who need motorized access to their claims with the world of motorized outdoor recreation that is exploding in popularity. I even spent some time in Arizona with AMRA learning how to mine for gold in the desert washes near Wickenburg with a metal detector.
Mining claim owners have incredibly strong legal standing for challenging decisions from government agencies that are secured by several mining statutes. Most roads enjoyed by outdoor recreation users were built and maintained by miners. There is no reason a strong alliance between outdoor recreation and small-scale miners shouldn’t be cultivated, and in the Black Canyon Corridor, we had the perfect opportunity. AMRA and its members own active mining claims in the area, and of the 57% of routes that would be closed in the BLM plan, several provided primary access to active claims. This was exactly the moment Shannon and I had been waiting for, and we started working together to make sure that AMRA and their members were included in the appeal process.
As our network of appellants continued to grow, I was told that I need to get in touch with Dave Sirota from the Arizona Undertakers 4×4 Club. It didn’t take long to connect, and once I did it was clear he had the most extensive knowledge of the network of rock crawling routes in the area. He had been involved extensively with helping the BLM understand the interests of the rock crawlers, and his participation in the process, like ASA4WDCs, was the gold standard of what we look for when finding partners who will provide solid legal standing for an appeal.
After hours of Zoom meetings, individual phone calls, drafting witness declarations, and researching the administrative record, by the early morning of November 23, the draft our appeal started with this paragraph:
Pursuant to 43 C.F.R. Part 4, American Mining Rights Association, Arizona State Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs, Inc., Arizona Undertakers 4×4 Club, Arizona Backcountry Explorers, the Casey Aragon Family, Michael Lake, Michael Slater, and BlueRibbon Coalition, Inc. (collectively, “Appellants”) hereby provide notice of their intent to appeal the Environmental Assessment, Finding of No Significant Impact, and Decision Record for the Black Canyon Corridor Travel Management Plan (TMP), DOI-BLM-AZ-P010-2017-0013-EA, prepared by Hassayampa Acting Field Manager, Tyler Lindsey, of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), signed October 21, 2021. This Notice of Appeal is timely filed, as the appeal deadline was extended to November 24, 2021 due to a planned network outage. Appellants will prepare and submit a Statement of Reasons pursuant to 43 C.F.R. §4.412.
This is what unity looks like!
At least, this was just going to be step 1 of building unity. The next step would be to build a nationwide network of support for the filed appeal. It is also notable that as we prepared the appeal, we had learned that Yavapai County was signaling strong opposition to the plan along with several AZ state legislators. It was this convergence of forces that kept me working on the appeal until late into the night. I didn’t want to let anyone down. As we prepared the appeal for the final review with our attorney that specializes in administrative challenges on the afternoon of Tuesday, news started to break that the BLM’s decision for the Black Canyon Corridor had been withdrawn.
At first we thought this must have just been an error with BLM website, since their websites have been undergoing routine maintenance a lot recently. After a few phone calls we learned the decision was formally withdrawn, and that this was something that could be done within the appeal period.
A withdrawal of the decision made it clear we wouldn’t need to actually file our appeal. But, a withdrawal of the decision is exactly what we were asking for in our appeal, and our request was backed with extensive arguments about fatal flaws in the BLM process and final maps. We made strong claims in defense of the access of our mining claim owner partners. Our attorney had been in contact with the Field Office and the Solicitor’s office in Arizona to ensure that the service of the appeal would be filed correctly, which made it clear to BLM that the decision would be challenged. We also know that local elected officials were lining up to oppose the plan. It is likely that this growing coalition of opponents to the plan created enough pressure that BLM decided it would be best to withdraw the decision and position this plan to be better informed by the substantive feedback that had been provided throughout the process.
The withdrawal of this plan is a clear short-term victory for those of us who didn’t want to see drastic reductions of access in this area. Until any new variation of this plan is released, the area will continue to be managed as it was managed prior to the release of this plan: 298 Miles of Routes that are Still Open for Public Use. While we were looking forward to using the momentum of this appeal to build a bigger movement to support an appeal all the way through federal court if necessary, it is clear that the opportunity now is to prepare for another round of feedback with the BLM – and potentially another appeal if there is not a meaningful course correction by the BLM.
There were truly fatal errors with the plan, and before any new plan is released, we need to work with the BLM to help them fix these errors and in the process make stronger arguments in favor of the better alternatives BLM could have selected. We now have a core group of stakeholders watching this process closely, and we are vigilantly committed to making sure the next iteration of this plan is infinitely better.
Of course we couldn’t have played the meaningful role we played in challenging this plan without the support of our members. I shared the story of our involvement in this process in detail, so that those who recreate on public lands recognize that these fights take time, they take coordinated effort, and they need to be taken seriously. We almost lost access to 57% of a popular riding area. If you’re not a member of BlueRibbon Coalition yet, there is no better time to join than right now as we push to hit our membership goals for the end of the year.
There are numerous plans in motion in other areas in Arizona. We’re in the middle of a fight to protect access in 13 BLM travel areas in Utah. Even as I right this we are closing in on the final days to comment on the GMUG National Forest Plan in Colorado. In Arizona there are local officials lining up to protect access in addition to our strong coalition of outdoor recreation advocates. It was because of comments submitted years ago from several organizations that we were able to draft a strong appeal in Arizona. In Colorado, local officials are lining up to support the most restrictive forest plans for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests. There, we could lose access to popular trails like Black Bear Pass and a whole lot more. If you haven’t submitted a comment yet, time is running out. It is time to get off the sidelines and help our friends in Colorado. These comments matter, and the withdrawal of the Black Canyon Corridor is the perfect example of why we need to be fully engaged in these processes. Our action alert tool (linked below) makes it easy to submit a comment in a few minutes. Help us out. Get it done!
In Arizona we proved that unity works. When we show up in force, we are a force to be reckoned with, and we need to show up to every fight with full strength.
In addition to supporting BRC, we know this outcome was the result of the following groups who also need support and deserve recognition:
We all played a unique role in this challenge, and it is only from the collective support of the outdoor recreation community that we are able to do this important work
With your support, we will continue to fight our guts out to preserve our access to our public lands.
Executive Director – BlueRibbon Coalition