The proposal comes on the heels of secret negotiations between the BLM and the state of Utah over disputed ownership of federal lands in that state. Utah has insisted it owns some 10,000 tracks, trails, paths and portions of streambeds crisscrossing federal public land in some of Utah's most wild places including parts of national parks and lands proposed for wilderness designation in America's Redrock Wilderness Act. It alleges that these are "highways" under a 136-year-old federal law that was repealed in 1976 known as RS2477. Recognition of these alleged roads would cede control of them to the states and remove vast areas of federal lands from wilderness consideration. Conservation groups say many of the so-called roads claimed by the state are nothing more than paths used by animals or dirt bike tracks running in seasonally dry steam beds. Consistent with the theory that a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words, see http://www.suwa.org/1866/trees.html for some examples of these so called "highways".
The recent BLM action would clear the way for the White House to hand over ownership of these disputed lands to the states or private interests while slamming a steel door in the face of the public and courts to review such public land giveaways.
"This is clearly another end run by the Bush administration to give away the public's resources to special interests," said Eric Huber of Earthjustice. "By sneaking the proposal into the federal register, the White House is hoping to make this change without anyone noticing. People interested in the wild places in Utah would wake up one day to find dirt bikes, ATVs and RVs roaring around on lands that used to be protected."
"The cynical use of this civil-war era statute is one of the biggest threats to our wilderness areas, national parks and wildlife refuges. The Bush administration's penchant for behind-closed-doors deal making is once again cutting to the heart of our natural legacy," said Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Current federal law allows the government to cede title of federal lands to existing owners of record, but not to non-owners asserting interest in federal lands as the state of Utah is doing here. The new rule would change that. The federal agency could give away the land to non-owners, outside of judicial proceedings, with minimal public involvement. The current law also requires that such claimants assert their claim within 12 years of learning of disputed claims. The new White House proposal eliminates the 12-year statute of limitations for asserting such claims – opening the door to a flood of old claims. The proposal is custom tailored to bypass existing protections guiding transfers of federal lands.
"It is ironic that this back-door approach to dealing with public resources is being cooked up to benefit Utah -- a state that officially professed outrage when the Grand Staircase-Escalant National Monument was designated on the grounds that the process wasn't fully public," said Pam Eaton of The Wilderness Society. "It is doubly ironic when one considers that Utah's Gov. Mike Leavitt pledges allegiance to putting issue resolution in the hands of the people. Apparently that enlightened process doesn't work when Utah is involved in a raid on America's public lands."
The move to change the rules midstream comes after Earthjustice attorney Eric Huber, on behalf of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society, asked the BLM and the State of Utah under the state and federal freedom of information acts for records of meetings where the two parties negotiated the state's claims on the lands. The state and the federal government both refused to produce any documents. The groups have filed suit in Washington, DC, to obtain the records.
The secret negotiations between the state and federal government began after the conservation groups won a major victory in U.S. District Court on June 20, 2001 regarding the disputed "highways". In that case, a federal judge rejected fifteen "highway" claims and held that to be valid, R.S. 2477 claims must have been "constructed" and must be "highways." The counties in that case argued that long-abandoned tracks and wash-bottoms in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and in proposed wilderness areas were "highways."
The federal government is taking written comments from the public on the proposed rule until April 23, 2002.
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