Utah Versus the National Parks

State prepares assault on national icons.

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Go to the website for the State of Utah and you’ll find a list of 12 “Popular Utah Destinations.” Five of the 12 are national parks.

And rightly so. Utah has some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the world protected by the National Park Service. The term “Red Rock” can’t capture the beauty and majesty of the many-hued spires, arches, hoodoos, petrified dues, cliffs, slot canyons and towers that are found in places like ZionCanyonlands, and Capitol Reef national parks.

So you might expect that Utah would bend over backwards to protect this bounty for future generations of (paying) tourists to enjoy.

You’d be wrong.

Instead, Utah is preparing to unleash an unprecedented attack on the ability of the National Park Service to protect its lands through the ancient, repealed law known as R.S. 2477.

That law, enacted a year after the Civil War ended, allowed those who constructed public highways across public lands to obtain rights of way to protect their investments. The law was repealed in 1976 and replaced with a modern system of addressing land management.

But instead of viewing the law as a shield to protect important highways, Utah will wield the law as a sword to attack national parks, national recreation areas, wilderness lands and national forests. They’ve told the Department of the Interior that they want to take control of 19,000 alleged “highways” on America’s public lands — including thousands that were seldom used two-tracks or footpaths utterly unimportant to public travel. (See page 7 of the Southern Utah Wilderness Allaince’s latest newsletter for a horrifying map showing all of the state’s claims.)

 If Utah wins, it hopes to have control over whether the routes will be open to dirt bikes, ATVs, or other motor vehicles (instead of horses and hikers), and whether routes that are not even visible on the landscape will become 66-foot-wide highways.

The state intends to file its “Mother of All Lawsuits” this spring. Scores of these claimed “highways” are in national parks including Canyonlands, Zion, and Capitol Reef. 

With such rights-of-way, the State will hamstring park rangers and other federal land managers who may need to close roads to protect wildlife or ancient Indian relics.

This is not an exaggeration. Take, for example, the state’s multi-year quest to declare a streambed in Canyonlands National Park a “public highway,” a gambit that has cost Utah and San Juan County, UT taxpayers over $1 million. Utah’s goal: open Salt Creek Canyon to jeeps.

Salt Creek is the richest archeological area in Canyonlands National Park. It is one of the few perennial streams in the park, and is an important wildlife corridor.

The Park Service, during the Bush Administration, concluded that allowing ANY motor vehicles in the stream – which will cause erosion, pollution, flatten willows, and have the vehicle grinding over archeological sites – would be incompatible with the protecting National Park values.

Utah doesn’t care. The state prefers cars to parks. The state’s lawyers continue to fight to have the creek determined to be a state “highway.” They just don’t believe the Park Service decision that a road through a creek is incompatible with protecting the clean water and habitat the creek provide.

(The federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering this claim; Utah lost its case in the lower court.)

So come to Utah! 

If the state has its way, there will be plenty of beautiful highways to see in the National Parks.  Just not so much park.


Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.