SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- For decades, state and federal officials across the West have locked horns over who rightfully controls countless dirt roads that cross federal lands.
Now, the federal Bureau of Land Management is inviting Utah officials to sit down and negotiate the dispute.
On Friday, BLM director Bob Abbey laid out a roadmap for talks, suggesting officials start first in Iron County and take the easiest roads to resolve in open, transparent negotiations.
Abbey said he was acting at the direction of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and taking up a challenge originally proposed by the Utah Association of Counties.
We're optimistic -- optimistic enough to devote some energy to this. We think it can lead to an outcome where special areas can be protected and counties can be secure in getting legitimate transportation routes recognized.
"Do we have a deal yet?" said the association's No. 2 official, Mark Ward. "No, but the groundwork is laid."
The association's executive director, Brent Gardner, said, "We're happy and certainly want to work with them."
No timetable for talks has been set.
The dispute is over historic passageways across lands owned by BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.
Utah officials say a one-sentence 1866 law assured open passage across the federal lands. The law -- repealed in 1976 with protection for existing roads -- set off protracted fights about which routes crisscrossing the West qualify for local control.
Many of the roads are faint tracks and barely passable even by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Others are maintained roads open for travel.
Utah wants to control or take title to all of these roads, or at least settle the debate about who controls which roads, Ward said.
That seems unlikely as environmental groups push to keep roads across wilderness-worthy lands closed to vehicles.
Three groups -- The Wilderness Society, National Parks Conservation Association and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance -- said they will take part in negotiations.
"We're optimistic -- optimistic enough to devote some energy to this," said Heidi McIntosh, associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "We think it can lead to an outcome where special areas can be protected and counties can be secure in getting legitimate transportation routes recognized."
Over the years, the federal government closed some of roads, provoking lawsuits that Utah counties have largely lost.
Nearly a decade ago, then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt signed another framework of negotiation with federal officials that "went nowhere," both Ward and McIntosh said.
McIntosh said her group reached out to successive Utah governors Olene Walker, Jon Huntsman and now Gary Herbert but couldn't move the ball forward.
"We needed a dance partner -- it takes two people to tango. We were unable to find a partner until recently," McIntosh said. "We give a lot of credit to Mark Ward."
Ward said the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance may have been long on negotiation but was short on compromise. Wilderness groups balked under the Republican administration of President George Bush, and it took the administration of Barack Obama, a Democrat, to get environmental groups to bargain in earnest, he said.
Anne Merwin, a policy adviser for The Wilderness Society, applauded Salazar's effort to resolve the long-standing dispute.
Utah officials have asserted many of their claims over roads in Zion National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and Cedar Breaks National Monument, said Kristen Brengel, legislative director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
"We welcome an opportunity to work with federal, state and local officials to bring some closure to this issue," Brengel said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)