Ryan Knappenberger

(CN) — Off-roading enthusiasts will continue to have near-total free reign around the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area after a federal judge declined to make a decision Thursday in a case pushing to restrict the activity.

U.S. District Judge Ana Reyes, a Joe Biden appointee, heard arguments between lawyers for the National Parks and Conservation Association and the National Park Service regarding a 2018 rule that created a 180-acre “Play Area” set aside specifically for off-road vehicles and allow their use on unpaved roads throughout Glen Canyon.

Reyes scheduled further hearings in December to hear arguments from additional interested parties, but could not promise a ruling until early 2024.

The canyon, located on the border of Utah and Arizona, includes sites like Horseshoe Bend and the Rainbow Bridge National Monument and just like the nearby Grand Canyon, was formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries cutting down the rock over 300 million years. It covers 1.2 million acres, with areas reserved for fishing, camping and hiking in addition to approximately 200 miles of unpaved roads used by off-road vehicles.

Kolya Glick, an associate with Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, argued on behalf of the conservation agency that the unmitigated use of off-road vehicles in the Lone Rock Beach area was causing irreparable harm to the environment and wildlife there.

The initial complaint filed by the environmental group takes issue with the environmental analysis conducted by the park service prior to the new rule, which the group argued illegally uses a 2007 plan to compare the potential environmental impacts, creating a skewed result.

Glick said Thursday that by using the recent plan as a comparison, the park service essentially said that since the area was already destroyed by prior off-roading activity, further use wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

Reyes also took issue with the environmental analysis, but explained that if she were to come to a decision, she would likely have to defer to the park service and accept their analysis on scientific grounds. That’s due to the Chevron legal precedent, which requires judges to accept an agency’s expertise in a matter absent a legal issue with their interpretation.

Justice Department attorney Jeffrey Candrian, representing the NPS, also had to defer to his client’s expertise in the subject matter, but made the distinction that Glen Canyon is not a national park, and thus is not subject to the same sort of environmental requirements.

“It’s very different, what’s allowed in recreational areas is different than what’s allowed in national parks,” Candrian said. “Congress specifically said it is different.”

He also added that the Lone Rock Beach area takes up just 2% of Glen Canyon, and there is still “numerous places to go to see pristine environments if you want that.”

Glick disagreed, saying that while the beach may be a small part of the overall recreation area, it would be better to avoid any damage to Glen Canyon’s unique ecosystem and instead create a separate, nearby area where visitors could go off-roading.

He said that it would make much more sense for NPS and the Department of the Interior to restrict the activity in and around Glen Canyon, and instead allow it on a less environmentally sensitive, 30,000-mile area of federal land operated by the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, where there are no concerns of environmental damage.

Glen Canyon is home to a wide array of species, including endangered fish species like the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker and the Bonytail, each of which are extremely rare in the wild and can only be found in the Glen Canyon's rivers.

Reyes responded to that assertion by referring back to the 304 miles of unpaved roads where off-road vehicles can travel, and the noise they bring with them, which Glick said was similar to that made by cement mixers.

She said it would make sense to limit the use of these vehicles just to the 180-acre play area, but the fact that people can use them across a wide range of the Glen Canyon means it’s not quite reasonable to argue there’s much in terms of mitigation. She described a trip she had taken to a secluded area in Nepal, and the wonder she experienced in large part due to the serene environment.

“If I were in the wilderness and I heard an off-road vehicle … it would kinda ruin the experience for me,” Reyes said.

There was no clear indication as to which way Reyes may rule come December when the parties next meet, but she emphasized the fact that any ruling she made would be subject to review by the U.S. District Court of Appeals.

Even if she were to decide not to defer to the park service, there’s a good chance the appeals court would decide differently, she said.