Group Sues Emery County Commissioners to Reopen Roads

Group Sues Emery County Commissioners to Reopen Roads

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A group has taken Emery County to court, trying to force commissioners to reopen roads closed by a federal agency.

The Shared Access Alliance, an off-road vehicle advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in 7th District Court in Castle Dale over 468 miles of county and state roads closed by the Bureau of Land Management in the San Rafael Swell area of Emery County, in east-central Utah, the Deseret Morning News reported Friday.

The roads, known by their original Civil War-era designation R.S. 2477, were closed by the BLM in 2003.

The 1866 law granted states and counties rights of way across federal lands. When the law was repealed in 1976, Congress allowed states and counties continued use of the traditional highways.

However, there continue to be disagreements over whether thousands of miles of wandering dirt paths that crisscross the West qualify as roads.

Since 1976, states and counties have claimed ownership of more than 7,000 rights of way, with potential for many more in the future. Environmentalists have argued that even small paths and trails are being grandfathered as protected roads, while groups like the alliance have argued statue applies to all "rights of way" in use before 1976.

The Emery County Commission is "between a rock and a hard place," said Commissioner Gary Kofford. "If we do what they want us to do we'd end up in jail."

Kofford estimates that the BLM has closed 40 or 50 roads, many of them "two-tracks" that the county has not maintained but that it still contends are roads.

The county must follow federal procedure, he said, asking the BLM to examine the R.S. 2477 claims. Only then, if the county feels that the BLM's decision to close a road is not in the county's best interest, can it file a suit against the BLM.

To "willfully" use the roads in the meantime would be breaking the law, Kofford said.

"Utah officials have a duty to keep highways open, not to arrest people simply for driving on them," argued alliance President Rainer Huck.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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