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SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of environmental groups said Utah's claims to rights of way on thousands upon thousands of roads, routes or trails are an "absolute travesty" being pursued despite economic folly and disastrous environmental consequences.
The legal battle over so-called RS2477 roads amped Tuesday to a new level after groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club unveiled a map depicting the extent of Utah's claims.
"You've heard of the bridge to nowhere? Well, these are roads to nowhere," said Heidi McIntosh, SUWA's associate director and counsel. "They aren't even really roads."
Joined by the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, the National Parks Conservation Association, a private property owner and others, McIntosh said Utah is embarking on a costly, foolhardy legal fight to assert rights to roads so they can grade, pave and improve them.
"These were not mapped to meet Utah's existing transportation needs," hundreds of years ago, she said, and state and local control of them would constitute a "disaster in the making."
But Utah's chief deputy attorney general John Swallow rejected the groups' contentions, saying the state is not asking for anything new, nor any legal ownership of a road that has not been historically used 10 years or longer.
"The state and this office has no interest in moving forward with litigation over a road that would not qualify as a road," Swallow said. "If they have not been used historically, the state won't be victorious in the lawsuit."
McIntosh said the groups sorted through Utah's own GIS database and pending litigation over RS2477 claims to arrive at the map and its depictions in response to Gov. Gary Herbert's December announcement of Utah's intent to sue over the issue. The actual deadline to sue in is mid-June this year for the state to preserve its claims to the rights-of-way.
These roads to nowhere are being used by vandals and looters to pillage our collective past for personal gain or selfish curiosity. And with each looter's pit, a page of Utah's past is ripped away and lost forever.
–Jerry D. Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance
The state said it would seek quiet title to 19,000 segments of roads in 22 counties — but McIntosh said all told, when other pending litigation is factored in, the state and counties are after more than 25,000 segments that add up to 45,000 miles.
Under contention in Utah courts for more than a decade, the RS2477 issue epitomizes the public lands fight involving environmentalists, counties, industry, ranchers and shared-access advocates.
The dispute involves rights-of-way access granted by the federal government in 1866 for the development of transportation systems. Although the congressional act establishing those rights was later withdrawn in 1976 with a new federal land planning act, the access rights of local government were supposed to stay intact.
Swallow said the lawsuit is the result of the federal government's inability or unwillingness to settle claims with the state, and he rejected the notion by SUWA and others that the pending suit should elicit alarm.
"The state's intent is not to pave anything," he said. "The intent is to perfect the right of Utah and Utahns to access these historical roads."
Opponents to increasing access to the RS2477 routes say a whole host of consequences lie in wait should that happen — sensitive species such as sage grouse are at risk, scenic landscapes will be despoiled and priceless cultural artifacts could be forever destroyed.
Jerry D. Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, said the existence of two track trails dramatically fosters vandalism at archaeological sites and the results are irreversible.
"These roads to nowhere are being used by vandals and looters to pillage our collective past for personal gain or selfish curiosity," he said. "And with each looter's pit, a page of Utah's past is ripped away and lost forever."
Alan Matheson, Herbert's point man on environmental issues, said the pending suit is an attempt to jump start negotiations with the federal goverment with an aim by the state to settle the dispute in a "reasonable and practical" way.
"I don't think anybody can argue the status quo is working," he said.