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Utah counties taking BLM to court over rights to roads

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SALT LAKE CITY — By this time next week, 22 of Utah's 29 counties will have filed lawsuits against the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management, seeking title to thousands of miles of contested roads that cross federally managed lands.

Beaver, Box Elder, Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Piute, Rich, Sanpete, Utah and Wayne counties had all filed individual lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City as of Friday night.

The state of Utah is listed as a plaintiff in each of the suits as well, and expects to join the remaining 12 county lawsuits that should be filed Monday and Tuesday, according to Utah's chief deputy attorney general John Swallow.

"We're trying to protect the roads that Utahns have used for decades," Swallow said. "If we don't file these lawsuits, we can't even protect the roads, and so the federal government can actually close down the roads and obliterate our rights to use those roads."

The state said in December that it would seek quiet title to 19,000 segments of so-called RS2477 roads in 22 counties.

The RS2477 issue — under contention in the courts for more than a decade — 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 Although the congressional act establishing those rights was later withdrawn in 1976 with a new federal land planning act, the access rights of local government were supposed to stay intact.

Duchesne County Commissioner Kent Peatross said he's always believed "we don't need a road down every canyon and ridge."

"But we need access that allows the general population to experience the public lands in a reasonable manner," he said. "Not everyone can walk, not everyone has a horse, and so a vehicle is the easiest and most common way to do that."

Environmental groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club, however, have blasted the state and the counties over their claims, arguing that many of the roads being identified in the title fight aren't even roads.

On April 24, the groups unveiled a map — based on their research of all the pending and imminent RS2477 litigation in Utah — that they claim shows the state and counties are actually seeking more than 25,000 segments that add up to 45,000 miles.

"You've heard of the bridge to nowhere? Well, these are roads to nowhere," Heidi McIntosh, SUWA's associate director and counsel, said during an April 24 press conference.

"They aren't even really roads," she added.

Joined by the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, the National Parks Conservation Association, a private property owner and others at the press conference, 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."

Swallow rejected the groups' accusations, saying the state and counties have chosen to pursue only the titles to roads that they can prove were in use for at least 10 years prior to 1976, as required by law.

"Each of the roads will be taken one at a time," he said. "So there'll be a document that's evidence, a package for each road."

Duchesne County has screened the road sections included in its 213-page federal complaint "very carefully" to ensure that they meet the legal requirements, Peatross said.

"We've left some roads out that we don't think are justified," the commissioner said. "We are claiming, in our portion of the lawsuit, only those roads that we feel are justified, are a legal claim and are necessary.

"Some roads out there, they may be duplicates, they may parallel each other," Peatross added. "We're saying, 'We'll take this one. We don't need that one.' I think most all the counties have done that."

Swallow said the lawsuits were necessary because the federal government has been unable or unwilling to settle RS2477 claims with the state. He rejected the notion by SUWA and others that the suits should be cause for alarm.

"The state's intent is not to pave anything," Swallow said. "The intent is to perfect the right of Utah and Utahns to access these historical roads."

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Geoff Liesik


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