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Supreme Court Hears Vehicle Access Lawsuit

On Monday, March 29, 2004, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in an administrative law case focusing on the manner in which special interest groups can challenge federal agency management of vehicle access to Utah desert lands. The case was originally filed in 1999 by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (“SUWA”) and other groups, who contend that the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) has “failed to act” to protect wilderness study areas and other lands. Also parties to the case are the BlueRibbon Coalition and the Utah Shared Access Alliance (“USA-All”), who intervened in the original suit on behalf of off highway vehicle recreation interests and filed the motion to dismiss leading to appellate proceedings before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

The Court led the arguing attorneys through a spirited and wide-ranging argument. Commentators and media observers characterized the Court as generally “unsympathetic” to SUWA’s claim that BLM had failed to act on its management duties, noting that there exist other and more traditional methods by which to assert the insufficiency of agency actions. Filing a merits brief in the case and attending the argument on behalf of the vehicle access advocates were lead counsel Paul Turcke of the BlueRibbon Legal Action Program and local counsel Paul Mortensen of USA-All.

“This case is both legally and factually complex, and observers and interest groups have found varied facets of it to emphasize,” Turcke observed. “In the end, this case is about whether a special interest group can invite ongoing judicial oversight of agency management simply by alleging the agency has ‘failed to act’ fully on some broad management duty”.

Access opponents conveniently overlook the BLM actions to aggressively manage vehicular access in vast portions of Utah’s desert to protect the back country character. “These groups seem to be focused on eliminating access to the fraction of these areas where families can still ride,” Turcke concluded.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist announced at the close of argument that the case has been submitted to the Court. The parties anticipate a decision in the case as early as this summer.

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