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WASHINGTON (AP) -- A deal between Utah and the Bush administration aimed at settling long-standing disputes over the ownership of federal roads violates federal law, according to a review by congressional lawyers released Tuesday.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Gov. Mike Leavitt signed an agreement last year seeking to resolve longstanding disputes over whether roads that snake across Utah are owned by the state or federal government.
It would have implemented an Interior plan to "disclaim" ownership of the disputed routes, and served as a model for settling similar disagreements over thousands of miles of roads across the West.
But the General Accounting Office, which is Congress' investigative agency, said in a legal opinion that the Leavitt-Norton deal contradicts a demand by Congress that it have final say on the road disputes.
At the same time, Interior's underlying plan to surrender ownership of the roads technically did not run afoul of the congressional prohibition, the GAO said.
Last month, Utah submitted its first road claim under the Leavitt-Norton agreement.
"We intend to continue moving forward with implementation of that (agreement), which protects national parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness and wilderness study areas," said Interior Department spokesman Mark Pfeifle.
While GAO's legal opinion has no binding authority, it charts arguments that are almost certain to be litigated in court.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who requested the GAO review, said it shows the Interior Department has overstepped its bounds in giving away federal land.
"The Utah agreement was touted by the administration as a model. Now that it's been deemed invalid, I hope that Secretary Norton abandons her effort to bypass Congress on this issue," Bingaman said.
Pfeifle said the department strongly disagrees with the GAO's determination that the Utah deal is illegal, but said Interior is pleased that its other arguments were validated.
The highway dispute stems from a Civil War-era mining law meant to encourage settlement of the West. The law -- Revised Statute 2477 -- 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 When the law was repealed in 1976, Congress allowed states and counties continued use of the traditional highways.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. Most have been in Utah, but there are an estimated 2,300 miles of disputed roads in California, and Moffat County, Colo., has claimed hundreds of miles of roads.
Another 21,000 navigable rivers in Alaska also fall under the same R.S. 2477 statute.
Use of the roads is important for ranchers and off-road enthusiasts, but environmentalists want the roads closed to protect sensitive areas.
"These claims really cut to the heart of some of the most scenic and fragile landscapes in the country," said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "That's the heart of the issue here. It's not about transportation. It's about preserving this fabulous canyon country."
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who fought for a year to block the department from giving up its interest in the roads, said the GAO should recognized the Interior Department is seeking to "end-run Congress and to cut out the public."
"From the beginning, I've said that the Bush administration is off-course on this issue and that they are steering straight into a legal morass. The GAO opinions confirm that," Udall said.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)