In a case with broad ramifications for Western public lands, conservation groups today filed suit against Kane County, Utah for enacting an ordinance that would illegally allow destructive off-road vehicle (ORV) use on protected public lands, including Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The suit also challenges the County's 2003 removal of Bureau of Land Management's ORV restriction signs in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the County's recent posting of dozens of county ORV signs in and around the Monument in areas closed to ORV use. The lawsuit, which was filed by Earthjustice for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society, charges that Kane County has violated the U.S Constitution's Supremacy Clause by opening up scores of routes within the national parks and monument to ORVs after federal agencies closed the routes to protect the environment and cultural artifacts.
"We're filing this lawsuit because Kane County is attempting to seize control of the management of some of America's most spectacular public lands," said Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice, one of the attorneys representing conservation groups. "The Constitution and federal law require that these lands be managed for all Americans, not by local counties for the benefit of a few ORV enthusiasts. Kane County's bluster and bullying don't give it the right to trash national parks and other lands by turning them into dirt bike and ATV playgrounds."
In 2003, Kane County officials removed numerous signs that the Bureau of Land Management had installed to identify routes and limit certain types of ORV use that had damaged the land. Although the BLM objected, the agency took no action against the county. In 2005, county officials began posting on public lands hundreds of their own signs which indicated that other routes the BLM had closed to off-road vehicles were actually open. This time, the BLM threatened legal action and the Department of the Interior referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice, which has not taken action.
Upping the ante, the county adopted an ordinance in August 2005 that would open to off-road vehicle use scores of trails on lands where such use is prohibited under federal rules, including hiking trails and stream beds inside Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, routes within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and trails and stream beds closed to off-road vehicle use in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
"We had to step in before some of America's most unique and popular parks and wild areas were seriously damaged," said Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society. "Kane County is pushing the envelope with outlandish actions that pose threats to the region's streams, wildlife, canyons, and archaeological treasures."
Kane County asserts that the routes in question are actually county "highways" under an1866 federal statute known as R.S. 2477, although the County has not attempted to substantiate any of its claims.
"There are reasonable solutions to the R.S. 2477 problem, but taking the law into your own hands is not one of them," said Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "These vast, natural landscapes are some of the most spectacular in the nation. They belong to all Americans who want to see them protected, not turned into ATV playgrounds and road networks."
County residents and conservationists assert that the county is using a legal loophole in an attempt to control public lands, and that these efforts will inevitably damage the land and put visitors at risk by sending them down remote, unmaintained dirt tracks. The top Bureau of Land Management official in Utah agreed. An April 2005 letter from then-Utah BLM State Director Sally Wisely stated, "I am very concerned that such actions…may likely present serious safety issues to members of the public…and cause resource damage."
"Kane County officials are now carrying out their stealthy plans as though they have the full support of the community," said Kane County resident Ron Smith. "They do not. We love and want to protect these places in our backyard. These actions undermine our desire to protect these places that make our area so special."
One thing is clear: The county's actions jeopardize some of the nation's most famous and best loved sites, including:
- the Paria River Canyon west of the Cockscomb, and the Dry Fork of Coyote Canyon along the Hole in the Rock Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where the County claims that hundreds of miles of canyons, streambeds, cow paths and hiking trails should be open to off-road vehicle use;
- Bryce Canyon National Park, where Kane County claims that portions of the scenic Under-the-Rim hiking trail and the Riggs Spring hiking trail are open to dirt bike and other off-road vehicle use;
- Zion National Park, Utah's oldest national park, where the county claims the eastern 5 miles of the East Rim foot and equestrian trail as a "constructed highway" that should be open to dirt bike and off-road vehicle use. The National Park Service bans such vehicle use on this trail, as it has for decades. The world famous East Rim Trail includes some of the Park's most dramatic scenery; and
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, where Kane County claims hundreds of miles of river corridors and desert footpaths as routes for dirt bike and off-road vehicles. Use of such vehicles is now prohibited in Glen Canyon, as it has been for decades.
"The county and state deny that their campaign is about removing public lands from protection, but their actions certainly tell a different story," said SUWA's McIntosh. "They are trying to eliminate existing or potential protection for thousands if not millions of acres of southern Utah's public lands. Ironically, these are the very same places that give southern Utah's Canyon County its national identity and economic stability."
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