At a hearing Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell denied the county's motion to dismiss a case filed by Earthjustice on behalf of The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The groups launched the legal action in 2005 after Kane County removed federal signs prohibiting vehicle access and put up hundreds of their own signs that opened closed areas in the monument to vehicles. The monument permits motor vehicle use on more than 900 miles of roads, but limits cars and off-road vehicles in some areas to protect wildlife, archeological sites, and water quality.
The county twice refused a Bureau of Land Management request to remove the signs
The county also adopted an ordinance that opened hundreds of miles of routes in Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, the monument, and wilderness study areas. The county claims ownership of the routes under a repealed Civil War-era law known as R.S. 2477.
In an attempt to undercut the lawsuit, Kane County partially backtracked in December 2006 by revoking its ordinance and removing decals inviting off-road use. But, it refused to remove the signs themselves. The county admitted in court Tuesday that at least 39 county highway signs remain, directing cars, trucks, and jeeps on routes that the BLM closed in 2000.
Judge Campbell said the county had failed to show that the case was moot, because the signs remained posted and because the county left the door open to re-enacting the ordinance.
"The court's ruling gives us a chance to halt Kane County's reckless actions that endanger the natural beauty, wildlife habitat, and archeological wonders that the Monument protects," said Ted Zukoski, attorney for Earthjustice. "We look forward to proving that the county can't trample the Constitution by defying federal laws that protect this spectacular area."
Despite the county's continued defiance of federal law, the BLM staff has not removed the illegal county signs and has begun a process for granting the county at least one R.S. 2477 claim outside the monument.
"We should not have to resort to litigation. The BLM should have removed the road signs. Instead, they are moving forward with a plan to turn over some routes to the county," said Kristen Brengel, of The Wilderness Society. "It's time for public land managers to stand up and protect these lands."
According to Heidi McIntosh, co-counsel for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, "We are gratified that the court confirmed the ability of citizens to challenge the county's unconstitutional attack on some of the most scenic federal public lands in the nation. That right is especially important where, as here, the federal government won't enforce its own laws."