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Environment Specialist John Hollenhorst reportingThe Bush administration quietly unveiled a new regulation over the holidays that streamlines certain disputes over federal land.
Some say it will make it easier for counties and states to get control of roads and trails, even in national parks and wildlife refuges.
The new rule is extremely technical. It streamlines the procedure for federal agencies to sign away the federal government's interest when there's a dispute over property.
Off-road vehicle enthusiasts call it a Christmas present from President Bush. But environmentalists say it's a lump of coal in the nation's Christmas stocking.
Counties have long claimed the right to maintain roads across federal lands. Federal law guarantees that, as long as there's evidence the road was constructed and historically used for a public purpose.
County officials still haven't seen the new Bush administration rule. But they expect it will make it easier for counties and states to claim rights-of-way.
"It would allow them to be able to do that and not have to jump through all of the hoops they they've had to to this point," says Mark Walsh with the Utah Association of Counties.
But environmentalists say counties are trying to assert road claims for tracks that aren't really roads, like animal trails, and barely discernable 4-wheel drive routes.
San Juan County claims thousands of miles of roads.
"There's basically more road than there is open country," says Heidi McIntosh with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance argues that such claims could undermine efforts to protect federal land from off-road vehicles and other threats. It says local governments are trying to get control of federal lands.
But county officials say it's not about stopping wilderness.
"The intent is to make certain that roads that are important to the local economies are not arbitrarily closed, whether it be by wilderness designation or otherwise," Walsh says.
The Bush administration went public with the rule the day before Christmas. It's expected to be published in the federal register on Monday.