State's Refusal to Share Public Documents Draws Challenge from Conservation Groups
Earthjustice today appealed the Utah Attorney General's refusal to provide public documents relating to highways claimed by the state under a federal statute known as R.S. 2477. The requests, filed in January under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act, seek basic information about the construction and location of the claimed highways, and the standards under which highway claims would be evaluated.
Joro Walker, an attorney for the groups, explained that state and various county officials have misconstrued the law to claim that thousands of faint, previously unmapped trails qualify as "constructed highways" under R.S. 2477. The result is that once they have laid claim to these trails, they could move in with bulldozers and convert them to permanent roads, subjecting some of the most scenic national parks and refuges to increased traffic and development.
State officials say they will seek to claim ownership of the alleged highways under an agreement that Gov. Leavitt secretly negotiated with US Interior Secretary Gale Norton last year. The federal General Accounting Office determined in February that the agreement is illegal because the parties failed to consult with congress as required by a 1997 congressional demand. Still, the state of Utah has yet to withdraw its ownership claims or to provide requested documents to the public. (Click here for GAO report.)
Earthjustice made the information requests and subsequent appeal on behalf of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society. The requests were denied in a January 2004 letter from the Attorney General's office to Earthjustice Attorney Ted Zukoski. The denial claimed that the documents in question were covered by various litigation and investigative privileges. The state has not, however, filed litigation under R.S. 2477.
Zukoski noted, "Information is power. Apparently, the Attorney General wants Utahns to be powerless to reach their own conclusions about whether these are real highways or ghost roads that threaten water quality, wildlife, and wilderness."
Last year, SUWA and The Wilderness Society prevailed in a federal suit brought under the federal Freedom of Information Act. In that case a judge rejected the Department of the Interior's attempts to keep secret documents relating to negotiations with the State of Utah over disputed R.S. 2477 highway claims across public lands.