Bush Opens Way for Counties and States to Claim Wilderness Roads

Times Staff Writer

From most perspectives, this windblown landscape is the definition of off the beaten path. Sandy hummocks give way to flinty mountain ranges and a seemingly impassable expanse that is home to herds of bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and a universe of heat-loving plants.

But others see the preserve's 1.6 million acres of creosote bushes and ribbed desert washes and envision thousands of miles of roads. Ditto for Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, along with wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada and along California's rugged northern coast.

That vision -- of unfettered motorized access to remote country that has for decades been the province of wild animals and a few hardy backpacking humans -- is a lot closer to reality thanks to a Bush administration policy quietly adopted earlier this month.

Bowing to long-standing pressure from several Western states and counties, the Interior Department's new policy gives local decision-makers the opportunity to lay claim to tens of thousands of miles of rights of way across federal land. Ultimately, it will be up to the Interior Department to determine the validity of the claims.

Enacted through a rules change, the new policy has the potential to open millions of acres of land in national parks and federally designated wilderness areas to motorized transportation. By providing access to isolated holdings, it could also open remote country to drilling for oil and gas and other commercial development.

The policy does not automatically convey rights of way to local jurisdictions. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management must rule on the validity of each claim. The agency is virtually certain to face legal challenges to any rights of way granted through parks or wilderness areas where motorized transportation is now prohibited.

Nonetheless, wilderness advocates have cause for alarm. The Bush administration has made its preference clear for granting state and local authorities increasing say in the way federal lands are used.

Deputy Interior Secretary Steve Griles recently told a group of Alaska mining and energy executives that the administration would soon approve rights-of-way claims from that state.

Alaska, Utah and other states, as well as a handful of Southern California counties, are asserting the rights-of-way claims under a little-known 1866 law titled RS 2477, which was designed to encourage the development of the rural West. The law was repealed in 1976, but states and counties were still able to make claims if the roads existed before 1976.

Wagon Trails

In many cases, what authorities are claiming as roads amount to little more than wagon tracks, livestock paths and even dogsled routes in Alaska. But with muscular, four-wheel-drive vehicles, even the most primitive routes can allow access to untrammeled places.

The issue heated up during the 1990s as off-road vehicle enthusiasts, hunters, ranchers and mining and energy interests became increasingly concerned about the Clinton administration's efforts to curtail road building in national forests, restrict mining near national parks and create parks and monuments.

The new policy does not take effect until Feb. 5, but already its implications are being felt across the West.

In California, San Bernardino County has indicated its intent to claim nearly 5,000 miles of rights of way -- more than twice the total mileage of maintained roads in the entire county. The county is pressing claims to 2,567 miles of roads within the Mojave National Preserve, acting at the behest of off-road enthusiasts, ranchers and mining interests.

Riverside and other counties have documented claims to rights of way in Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and 21 wilderness areas in the Southern California desert.

Counties such as San Bernardino say they are simply securing legitimate claims that they may or may not intend to exercise.

"These are blanket assertions," said Brad Mitzelfelt, chief of staff for San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus. "It's a matter of defending local prerogatives and local rights. If you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to protect rights that you may lose forever, you've got to take it."

Park and wilderness advocates fear it will disrupt wildlife habitat, turning 19th century wagon ruts into paved roadways, allowing cars and their pollution into unspoiled places.

"We're concerned about highways, but in a way that's just the tip of the iceberg," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which has been monitoring RS 2477 claims for more than a decade.

McIntosh said one of the right-of-way claims in Utah leads down a waterfall and another through a 4-foot-wide slot canyon.

"With roads comes pollution, wildlife fragmentation, off-road vehicles, the loss of solitude and quiet. Multiply that by 10,000, the number of claims here in Utah, and you have a mess. I can't think of an issue the Bush administration is working on that can have a longer or more serious impact on public lands."

Impact Assessed

Ten years ago, the National Park Service evaluated potential RS 2477 claims and found that if the roads were allowed, the impact would be devastating. The report noted that the claims could cross many miles of undisturbed fish and wildlife habitat, historical and archeological resources, and sensitive wetlands.

"If a court were to decide that the law says the right-of-way roads have precedence over legally designated wilderness, that would have a catastrophic effect on wilderness," said David Graber, senior science advisor at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and a member of the park service's wilderness steering committee.

The Clinton administration proposed a rule that would have prevented footpaths, dogsled tracks and other primitive routes from being turned into roadways but met resistance from Congress, and the issue went unresolved.

Today, Interior officials say the change is needed to streamline time-consuming disputes and lengthy legal proceedings. The new rule removes public comment and judicial review from the process and gives the Bureau of Land Management sole authority to validate right-of-way claims.

Nationally, some of the most celebrated public landscape could be affected. Alaska has asserted claims over 22,000 waterways and 2,700 miles of roads in 13 national parks and preserves, including Denali National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.

In Utah, many of the rights of way crisscross southern Utah's spectacular red rock country -- where local officials contend that the cluster of half a dozen national parks and proposed wilderness areas stand in the way of access to cattle grazing, minerals, and oil and gas deposits.

There and elsewhere, off-road enthusiasts as well as cattle, mining and ranching groups and hunters have lobbied hard for the rights of way, in some cases filing claims themselves.

"It's been a long and arduous fight because the previous administration wasn't cooperating. Now, we've found willing ears," said Clark Collins, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a Pocatello, Idaho-based organization representing motorized recreation interests.

"In rural areas, people are very interested in this issue, it means so much to all of us," said Ron Schiller, who heads a recreation group in Ridgecrest, Calif., that supports rights-of-way claims. "Up here in the high desert, this is what we have to recreate. We don't have a lot of miniature golf courses or big theaters or theme parks."

In the Mojave Preserve, hunters drive abandoned mining roads and hike to get closer to their quarry: bighorn sheep and deer. For much of the preserve, the old routes weave through low brush and serve to keep visitors from more sensitive desert areas.

The Blue Ribbon Coalition's California chapter has made three rights-of-way claims, pushing for motorized access across hundreds of miles of wilderness in Sequoia National Forest, through the King Range National Conservation Area on the north coast and in non-wilderness tracts in the Six Rivers National Forest.

"We don't want to undo vast sections of wilderness, that's not our intent. We do intend to protect our access," said Don Amador, the group's Western states representative.

But access carries implications for altering landscapes. Roads through wilderness create traffic corridors and make adjacent areas more accessible. Miners or others who own land within federal preserves may decide that new roads will make it economically feasible to develop their land commercially, or explore for oil and gas.

"Once Interior opens the door, it's a free-for-all," said Keith Hammond of the California Wilderness Coalition, whose volunteers are walking thousands of miles of RS 2477 claims in the state to inventory the condition of the routes.

Mitzelfelt said San Bernardino County doesn't know which of its current claims would be pressed. With a budget of $30 million for maintaining the county's existing roads, Mitzelfelt said, he was unsure what the cost would be for new roads or how to pay for them.

Across the country there is no indication how many claims will be validated, and critics acknowledge their concern, at this point, is based on the potential for damage.

So far the Interior Department has offered no clear direction on the rule's most potentially explosive aspect -- what to do about rights of way that cross the borders of wilderness. Under a federal law, motorized travel is not allowed in wilderness areas.

"We're wondering how this is going to work out," said BLM spokesman Jeff Holdren.

He said the nitty-gritty details of implementation of the rule change have not been worked out, including how to deal with right-of-way claims in wilderness areas.

"We didn't expect anyone to want roads in wilderness, but technically it can be done. I suspect we will be in court pretty soon over such a situation. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there pulling their hair out."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 604 words Type of Material: Correction Mojave map -- A map accompanying a Jan. 21 California section article on roads in the Mojave National Preserve improperly placed the town of Kelso five miles south of its actual location.
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°