Keep public lands open to the public

While respecting the Bureau of Land Management's desire to protect rare and sensitive artifacts, we have to wonder just where the line should be drawn on restricting access to public lands.

One case in point is the Ruhenstroth area closed to off-highway vehicles this week to lessen the potential for destroying prehistoric mastodon bones.

Another would be Sand Mountain, where conservationists argue the BLM isn't doing enough to protect the blue butterfly's habitat. Another is Wilson Canyon, where a small area is closed to vehicles and campers who may do damage to a sensitive streambed.

And then there is the Black Rock Desert, where the BLM encourages thousands of people to create a temporary city by permitting the annual Burning Man extravaganza.

Throughout the West, the BLM administers some 261 million acres, and there's never been a time when the definition of "multiple use" of those lands wasn't questioned, criticized, and redefined by whoever had an ax to grind.

Such uses are frequently in conflict, from mining to recreation. Even among recreationists, there's a big difference between riding an OHV and birding.

So we recognize the difficulties of trying to balance the competing demands. In the case of the restriction on OHVs in the Ruhenstroth area, an attempt is being made to guard the area from erosion while a plan is completed on what is called the Ruhenstroth Paleontological Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

We would encourage the BLM to err on the side of openness. At some point, officials must simply trust the public to take care of its own property and natural resources. That a few may be destructive - witness recent damage to petroglyphs, and the conviction of an Oregon man who looted an Indian burial site - is not enough reason to deny access to the rest.

The irony of the mastodon bones is that they were discovered by a young man on an off-highway vehicle. We'd hate to think the message sent by the BLM is, "If you find something significant, don't tell anyone."


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