The Bureau of Land Management, Juab County, the State of Utah, and three conservation groups today announced an agreement to resolve a long-running dispute over primitive dirt roads and trails in the Deep Creek Mountains of western Utah. The agreement settles a handful of the State of Utah and Juab County’s right-of-way claims on BLM-managed in a fashion that balances protection of the remote Deep Creek Wilderness Study Area with motorized vehicle access. The settlement marks an historic first—a negotiated resolution of some of the 14,000-plus claims of “highways” brought by Utah and Utah counties.
The State of Utah and Juab County agreed to give up claimed roads in several canyons leading into the Deep Creek Mountains, while conservationists agreed not to oppose limited motor vehicle use at two locations where historic use was evident. The State of Utah and Juab County also agreed not to pursue claims for several alleged rights-of-way in neighboring lands proposed for wilderness designation in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.
“This settlement reflects a case where everyone understood the need to protect special places from too many roads and the threats that motorized use pose for one of the Great Basin’s most remote and remarkably beautiful places,” said Heidi McIntosh of Earthjustice. “The Deep Creek settlement may prove to be a model for resolving many of the thousands of claims that remain.”
Juab County’s claims were based on R.S. 2477, a Civil War-era statute that granted states and counties rights-of-way across federal lands to meet transportation needs in the sparsely-settled west of the 1800s. Although the law was repealed in 1976, Congress recognized that “valid” rights-of-way would not be extinguished. As no accounting of these routes was required by the antiquated law, the federal government and conservation groups are now engaged in legal battles over which of the thousands of routes claimed on federal lands by the State of Utah and counties are legitimate.
“This settlement is a positive development, but it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the State of Utah has 29 other active lawsuits claiming more than 14,000 other dirt roads and trails (totaling more than 36,000 miles) as RS 2477 ‘highways,’” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “These claims, many of which are nothing more than cowpaths or dry streambeds, crisscross National Parks, National Monuments, and Utah’s remarkable red rock wilderness. Conservation groups have been permitted to intervene in several of these cases and are actively working to defend the United States’ title to these claims.”
The Deep Creek Mountains, located west of Salt Lake City and just east of the Nevada border, are western Utah’s highest mountains, an isolated “island” overlooking the Great Salt Lake Desert dominated by 12,087-foot Ibapah Peak. This unique range rises 7,800 feet above the surrounding desert lands and is known for its rich biodiversity, perennial streams, and opportunities for solitude. Nearly 70,000-acres in the heart of the range have been designated as the Deep Creek Mountains Wilderness Study Area and are managed for their wilderness qualities. Recreational activities include hunting, wildlife viewing and hiking.
“This settlement shows that even the most divisive of issues surrounding our public lands can be resolved if reasonable minds are willing to come to the table,” said Phil Hanceford, Assistant Director of Agency Policy and Planning at The Wilderness Society. “It gives us hope that we can work together with diverse stakeholders elsewhere in Utah to provide more certainty and protection for our wildest public lands.”
“Lawsuits are a needlessly expensive way to address road issues when negotiations with reasonable parties can provide both needed access and the protection of beautiful and fragile landscapes like the Deep Creek Mountains,” said Wayne Hoskisson of the Sierra Club. “Importantly in this case, and in contrast to many of the R.S. 2477 claims in Utah, the county and state were able to provide significant evidence of historic use as the basis for the settlement,” Hoskisson added.
Recognizing R.S. 2477 rights-of-way gives the state and counties the right to use a route as a county or state “highway,” diminishing the ability of federal land managers to protect the surrounding areas from the noise, dust, scars and erosion that often comes with the use of such routes. Because many of the pending claims in the State of Utah’s other 29 lawsuits involve faint trails, dry stream beds, and two-tracks in special places such as national parks and national monuments, as well as vast stretches of wilderness and other lands valued for ecological, recreational or scenic importance, conservation groups have sought to stem excessive and destructive claims. Under R.S. 2477, the county and state are required to demonstrate by “clear and convincing” evidence that the route was used continuously by the public for at least ten years for a right-of-way to be considered valid.
In this settlement, three rights-of-way entering the Deep Creek are granted to Juab County, who will maintain the roads for responsible use and in large part only to their current width. The county in turn will withdraw its claims for other rights-of-way that intruded on wilderness quality lands and did not rise to the standards of use and maintenance required by law. The County will also pass and enforce an ordinance that will limit motorized vehicle use to designated routes. Off-road vehicle damage has been a problem in the area and enlisting the county as a partner with BLM in constraining vehicle use to designated routes will help protect some of Utah’s most special places.
The 2005 federal lawsuit settled by this agreement was brought by the State of Utah and Juab County against the United States in Federal District court. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club intervened as defendants and were represented by Heidi McIntosh and Ted Zukoski from the public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice and by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorneys.