Thursday, September 05, 2013

Counties want to take the roads less traveled -- and keep them

A bullet-riddled sign in Utah's pinyon-juniper desert warns of a winding highway ahead. It's a harbinger of the tortuous political and legal fight among Utah's counties, environmental groups and the Bureau of Land Management that could dramatically change management of the area's stark deserts, red rock canyons and backcountry lands. Key witnesses say they remember Island Park Road being used by jeeps and trucks at least as far back as the 1950s for livestock operations, farming, fishing and other recreation. That, according to an 1866 mining law, means management of the road rightfully belongs to Utah, not BLM or the National Park Service, over whose land the road crosses. The 17-mile road, which winds past ranchlands and American Indian petroglyphs to a historical ranch along the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument, is one of more than 12,000 roads that Utah and its counties last year claimed as their own in federal district court. Spanning about 36,000 miles, the road claims represent one of Utah's boldest bids yet to assert control over federal lands and, according to conservationists, the most serious threat to Utah's remaining wildlands. Utah claims the roads at stake have been used for decades by hunters, cattle ranchers, mineral speculators and motorized vehicle enthusiasts, and have either been shut down or restricted, or are in danger of closure by the federal government. "There will be economic benefits derived from these roads if they're kept open," said Anthony Rampton, Utah's assistant attorney general and lead litigation counsel for the roads lawsuits. "That benefit will come from ranching enterprises, oil and gas development, wind development, solar development, tourist income, hunting and fishing income." But unlike similar campaigns by Utah to "take back" federal lands through eminent domain or by hamstringing federal law enforcement agents, the law appears to be on Utah's side in its road battle. In March, Utah's Kane County claimed a major victory when a federal district judge awarded it rights of way over 12 of 15 roads it had claimed, four of which run through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (Greenwire, March 25). Some of those 89 miles also run through the Paria-Hackberry wilderness study area, which BLM recognized for its roadless characteristics and which environmentalists have eyed for future wilderness designation...more

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