Bush Administration Stonewalling Public on Phantom Roads
Conservationists sued the federal government late Thursday for continuing to withhold documents from the public concerning their supposedly open process for resolving claims to disputed dirt tracks across Utah and the rest of the West. The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, challenges the Department of the Interior's failure to release public information concerning jeep tracks and cattle paths claimed as constructed highways by Utah and other western state and county governments under the repealed Civil War-era law known as R.S. 2477.
Potential impacts of turning over rough trails to the state as highways include destruction of existing wilderness areas, disqualification of unprotected areas as wilderness, damage to wildlife habitat, destruction of riparian areas, harm to watersheds important for drinking water, and the elimination of beloved hunting and hiking opportunities.
"Interior has established a pattern of withholding information from the public about activities that will directly impact public lands," said Leslie Jones of The Wilderness Society. "Rather than try to resolve this issue in an open, common-sense manner, Interior has chosen a path choked with secrecy and confrontation."
Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for SUWA, agreed: "If these are really public highways, why keep the public in the dark? If the government makes these decisions in secret discussions, the public may one day wake up surprised to find that the most remote, pristine western landscapes are crisscrossed with roads." She noted that Utah has even argued in federal court that the Bureau of Land Management can't protect potential wilderness areas from off-road vehicle travel because the state claims all-terrain vehicle trails are really constructed highways under R.S. 2477.
SUWA and The Wilderness Society filed their lawsuit after waiting more than six months for the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to provide information concerning the secretly negotiated agreement between Utah and the Interior Department to ease the give-away of jeep tracks across Utah's public lands. The deal was approved one year ago without public notice or involvement. Both then-Governor Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Gale Norton promised that the process for reviewing Utah's claims would be open to the public. But six months after the legal deadline for responding to the groups' requests, the Interior Department and BLM continue to withhold documents that could shed light on the process.
In 2002, The Wilderness Society and SUWA had to sue BLM and the state of Utah to obtain a map of Utah's claims to proposed highways across the state. As a result of the suit, BLM released Utah's map, which showed the state claiming 100,000 miles of highways including every hiking trail in Zion National Park and numerous routes in the Wasatch Mountains.
"Miners, loggers, oil and gas developers, all-terrain-vehicle users, and other special interests hope to use a Civil War-era law to punch dirt-bike trails and paved roads into our national parks and wildlife refuges by asserting that old trails should be considered highways," said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, who represents the groups in the case. "The best way the public can defend parks and refuges is to gather information about these threats. And that's exactly the information the Bush administration won't release."