Judge rules against Utah’s bid to control roads in national parks


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Last week a federal judge ruled against San Juan County and the state of Utah in their long-running attempt to open an off-road vehicle route in Canyonlands National Park. The route, a stream bottom called Salt Creek, was closed more than a decade ago by the National Park Service to stop engine oil and grease from polluting the stream and degrading wildlife habitat.

The claims are part of an effort by several western states and counties to gain control of federal land through an obscure 19th century statute called RS 2477 that allows local entities to claim rights of way if they can prove that the routes were formerly used as historic roads or trails.


The legal maneuvering has been used by officials in some cases to punch roads into areas that are being considered for wilderness protection.

Heidi McIntosh, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Judge Bruce Jenkins’ ruling is critical because it holds that evidence of long-abandoned prospecting routes, livestock trails and occasional off-road travel do not convey RS 2477 rights or easements. And they cannot be called highways, which is the language of the statute.

The ruling concluded that a Jeep trail on a streambed was a ‘byway, but not a highway.’

The Salt Creek claim slices through a national park and is part of an expansive roadless area on the Colorado Plateau. Canyonlands is part of southern Utah’s spectacular red rock country, recently seen in the film ‘127 Hours.’

Conservation groups have been trying for decades to persuade Congress to designate wilderness areas in the region. Those efforts have been largely thwarted by the state’s governors and members of Congress.

Utah officials have persisted, even in the face of legal setbacks. There’s every chance that the fight to wrest control of federal land will continue: Two weeks ago Garfield County filed a notice of intent to sue for 75 rights of way in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and the state is expected to file hundreds of RS 2477 claims.


-- Julie Cart