Federal court sides with environmentalists in battle over Utah 'roads'

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal appeals court has slapped down Kane County officials and sided with environmentalists in a major ruling over ATV trails that the county claims are roads. The ruling says Kane County was wrong to take down signs, and federal law prevails.

The lawsuit is bitter fruit that fell from President Clinton's 1996 decision to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. When federal officials declared certain travel routes off limits to ATVs, Kane County officials took down the signs and put up their own, declaring certain routes to be county roads.

Environmentalists sued because many so-called roads are really trails. Now, the court has ruled against the county.

Revised Statute 2477 says, "the right-of-way for the construction of highways across public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted." It became law shortly after the Civil War when Congress enacted it as part of the Mining Act of 1866. In 1976 Congress repealed it when it passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. However, valid existing rights-of-way were grandfathered as long as they met the requirements of the statute. The interpretation of those requirements has led to decades of dispute over what is a legitimate highway. Some Utah counties argued passage of vehicles alone amount to construction of a highway, allowing them to mark dirt trails as highways.
"It says they cannot do that, they can't take the law into their own hands," said Heidi McIntosh, with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The Denver court says federal law takes precedence unless the county has a proven historic right-of-way. But Kane County officials told KSL News by phone the ruling will hurt people who cross public land to recreate or make a living.

"I'm mad as hell, John! You know, they've basically emasculated anybody in any county in the western United States on managing any road system," said Dan Hulet, chairman of the Kane County Commission.

Kane County Commissioner Mark Habbesha said, "I think it's all about control. The federal government wants to control everything that's within federal lands."

"Well, this court really affirmed what most of us already know," McIntosh said. "These are federal lands subject to federal law, and they're managed by federal land managers for the benefit of everybody."

All sides agree the ruling is an important turning point in a long-running battle over roads and federal control.

"It's really blown a hole in the whole Sagebrush Rebellion business," McIntosh said.

Hulet said, "I think it solidifies the Sagebrush Rebellion, not just in the state of Utah, but throughout the West."

County officials argue it's also a safety issue because the court ruling gives the federal government the duty to maintain the roads, but the feds aren't doing it. Kane County is considering an appeal, possibly to the United States Supreme Court.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com


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