Federal Court Protects Heart of Wilderness from Highway Claim
A federal court yesterday threw out a lawsuit by four-wheel drive clubs that hoped to turn a dozen miles of trails in a proposed wilderness area into public highways for a select few dirt bikes and extreme jeep tours. The ruling from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals protects the Robledo Mountains Wilderness Study Area north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and will prevent similar bogus claims that public highways crisscross some of America's most pristine public lands.
The ruling is a victory for the Bureau of Land Management and for Earthjustice on behalf of The Wilderness Society and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. Conservationists have been fighting for decades to protect the Robledo Mountains.
"This is a victory for those who love New Mexico's wildlife and wild places," said New Mexico Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Dave Parsons. "It means that our kids and grandkids may still be able to find some beautiful, unspoiled areas for hiking, hunting, and peace and quiet in the future."
The four-wheel drive clubs sued to overturn BLM's decision to close to off-road vehicle use more than ten miles of trails in the heart of the Robledo Mountains wilderness study area. BLM closed the routes to vehicles in 1998 because increased and illegal off-road vehicle abuse was degrading the area's wild character and destroying wildlife habitat.
The clubs claimed that the trails should remain open under a repealed nineteenth-century highway law known as R.S. 2477. The law provided that rights-of-way would be granted where public highways were constructed over public lands.
The Tenth Circuit rejected the clubs' claim that public highways exist within the roadless Robledo Mountains on the grounds that only states or counties can claim to own public highways under the Quiet Title Act, the federal law governing attempts to take property away from the United States. The ruling sets a clear precedent that private groups attempting similar claims to public trails will not be successful in the Tenth Circuit.
"National parks, wildlife refuges, and other treasured public lands across the West are safer today because this court ruled that off-road groups can't use an ancient, repealed law to claim exclusive use of lands that belong to all Americans," said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney at Earthjustice. Zukoski noted that when the Forest Service and other agencies try to protect public lands by limiting destructive off-road use, off-highway groups across the West often challenge them by claiming little-used trails are public highways under the outdated law.
The Robledo Mountains WSA contains high limestone peaks, deep canyons, caves, streams, significant prehistoric archeological sites, and habitat for bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and mule deer. These are true desert mountains, where yucca stalks sometimes rival the height of trees.
Pam Eaton, a Deputy Vice-President of The Wilderness Society, also praised local Bureau of Land Management officials who made the decision to protect the area's special values by closing the trails to off-road vehicle use, and fought the four-wheel clubs in court. "BLM staff stood up to protect this part of the wild New Mexico and stuck to their decision. We applaud those folks for looking out for future generations of Americans who will treasure this natural legacy."