After much controversy and secrecy, the Department of the Interior today finally published a rule that makes it easier for states and local jurisdictions to convert dirt tracks and wash bottoms on public lands into roads. Conservationists, members of Congress, and the National Park Service claim that the new rule has the potential to devastate wilderness throughout the western United States and Alaska and national parks, including Joshua Tree, Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Mojave National Preserve.
"It looks like the Bush administration's New Year's resolution is be kinder and gentler to developers and give away more of Alaska and the American west to their supporters," said Earthjustice attorney Eric Jorgensen.
"This allows special interests to punch highways into our most precious parks and refuges along long-abandoned mining trails, cattle paths, and stream beds," said Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This action will have a lasting and devastating impact on public lands."
The Bush administration intends to use the rule to implement a long-dead Civil War-era law (Revised Statute 2477 or RS 2477) designed to encourage western settlement. It would be used to recognize specious claims by some states and counties that they have rights of way across pristine federal lands in Utah, Alaska, California, and other western states. Congress repealed RS 2477 in 1976, but local politicians and the mining industry attempted to resurrect the dead law in the mid-1980s to preclude wilderness designation and open pristine areas to development. And although the administration has been evasive about how the new rule applies to RS 2477, the BLM's website claims that, "This proposed rule would provide an opportunity for States and other local governmental entities to secure a right to a highway which is purported to be a RS 2477 highway reservation."
"The Interior Department is being disingenuous when it claims to want to reduce litigation," said The Wilderness Society's Dave Alberswerth. "They have developed the rule in secrecy and are giving the public no opportunity to appeal right-of-way and disclaimer decisions, so in reality court action will be the only way to challenge decisions that degrade our parks and wilderness."
According to a 1993 National Park Service memo, RS 2477 claims could affect 17 million acres of national park lands. According to the memo, the impacts "could be devastating...[They] could cross many miles of undisturbed fish and wildlife habitat, historical and archeological resources, and sensitive wildlands...[They] would undoubtedly derogate most unit values and seriously impact the ability of the NPS to manage the units for the purposes for which they were established." Studies have found that roads and vehicle use lead to fragmentation of wildlife habitat, soil erosion, and to the increased use of off-road vehicles in adjacent undeveloped areas.
"The new regulations are a substantial and serious threat to national parks," said Craig Obey, Vice-President for Government Affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. "They are also a major giveaway of public lands. With 90 percent of public comments on the regulations opposed to the administration plan, this is clearly a sellout to exploiters who want to pave, rather than protect, the parks."
Although counties in Montana, Idaho, and Oregon also have asserted claims to every road on the national forest lands within the county boundaries, the largest land giveaways could occur in Utah, Alaska, and California, where specific examples include:
- In southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, counties defied the area's protected status in 1996 and scraped roads out of obscure trails. Now they're trying to again use RS 2477 claims in the heart of the monument, in the fragile bed of the Paria River. This area is within the boundaries of the Paria-Hackberry Wilderness Study Area and is included in America's Redrock Wilderness Act. Validation of the RS 2477 claim would disqualify much of the area from wilderness protection. In total, county officials have asserted almost 10,000 right-of-way claims under the statute. [photo]
- The state of Alaska has identified 24 routes in Denali National Park and Preserve that it contends may be valid state rights-of-way under RS2477. Most of the claims are in the northern quarter of the park and cover approximately 350 miles -- area that includes the ranges of the Toklat and Savage wolf packs and countless caribou that move along the glacier-fed Toklat River. Virtually all the proposed claims are on designated wilderness lands or lands proposed for wilderness designation. [photo]
- In California, an aggressive effort by San Bernardino County to survey specific routes and map claims -- including wagon roads, trails, and horse and footpaths -- has resulted in 2,567 miles of road claims in the Mojave National Preserve and another 2,419 miles elsewhere in the California desert. The county is only 80 percent of the way through its survey. In commenting on the disclaimer rule, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works in California criticized any potential cost recovery that the rulemaking may impose because the number of claims the county might potentially file could create a financial burden on San Bernardino County. [photo]
"While the Bush administration says this rule cuts red tape, what it really does is cut a maze of unnecessary roads through much of what little wilderness remains, while cutting the American people out of decisions to safeguard lands they own," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. "The rule only makes it easier for special interests to carve up what few wild places are left."
For more information on RS 2477, visit:
- Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
- California Wilderness Coalition
- Stop RS 2477 Campaign
- RS-2477 road inventory in San Bernardino County, CA (map)
- Bureau of Land Management release on ruling
- Final Disclaimer Rule from Federal Register
Photos (click any image to enlarge):
Granite Mountains Wilderness Area, in Mojave National Preserve; trail to Cottonwood Spring is claimed as RS 2477 highway right-of-way. An abandoned two-track jeep trail showing no evidence of construction, now used only as a footpath, steeper sections badly deteriorated, passable only to high clearance or 4WD vehicles. Some vehicle trespass is occurring mid-way along the route, apparently from a side wash, but does not extend to the spring. The route leads to a remote basin (this photo) in designated Wilderness with no ranching use and no evident public purpose -- it is not now, and never was, a "public highway."
This R.S. 2477 claim lies in the bed of the Paria River in southern Utah's Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument. It is also within the boundaries of the Paria-Hackberry Wilderness Study Area, which is protected under federal law, and is included in America's Redrock Wilderness Act. Off-road vehicle use has already damaged the WSA, churned up sedimentation in the water, and eroded fragile stream banks. Validation of the claim would disqualify much of the area from wilderness protection.
The State of Alaska has identified 24 routes in Denali National Park and Preserve that it contends may be valid state rights-of-way under RS2477. Most of the claims are in the northern quarter of the park and cover approximately 350 miles. Virtually all the proposed claims are on designated wilderness lands or lands proposed for wilderness designation.
Eric Jorgensen, Earthjustice, 907/586-2751
Dave Alberswerth, TWS, 202/429-2695
Heidi McIntosh, SUWA, 801/486-3161
Craig Obey, NPCA, 202/223-6722
Susan Whitmore, CAW, 202/266-0435
Keith Hammond, CWC, 530/758-0380
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.