Counties Can't Seize National Rights-of-way, Judge Says
Two Utah counties can't unravel protections limiting off-road vehicle use on the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, by claiming without proof that they have historic rights-of-way, a federal court judge ruled Friday (6/29/2007).
In a ruling that blocks the counties' broad seizure of wash bottoms and seldom-used jeep tracks as "highways" under a repealed 19th Century law known as R.S. 2477, United States District Court Judge Bruce Jenkins ensured that off-road highway development could not run amok in these unique national lands.
The judge largely dismissed the lawsuit filed by Kane and Garfield counties, seeking to overturn reasonable limits to off-road vehicle use within the 1.8 million acre Monument. The Monument contains arches, natural bridges, dinosaur fossils, archeological treasures, and some of the most dramatic desert scenery in the western US.
The suit was opposed by Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm representing the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The counties have claimed hundreds of seldom-used jeep tracks and canyon bottoms as "highways" under the old law. The suit demanded that their claims be settled by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and in the meantime that any provisions protecting the desert environment from dirt bikes, ATV, and other off-road vehicles be overturned.
Judge Jenkins held that it is up to the courts -- not the BLM -- to determine R.S. 2477 rights-of-way, and dismissed the counties' challenge to Monument plan restrictions on off-highway vehicle use and road development.
"It's a great day for the Grand Staircase," said Ted Zukoski, one of the Earthjustice attorneys on the case. "The Monument plan protects wildlife, water quality, wilderness, and archeological wonders while providing nearly 1,000 miles of roads and off-road trails. The counties wanted to eliminate all protections limiting dirt-bikes, ATVs and other off-road vehicles based on the counties' word that somewhere out there were a bunch of roads."
"The court ruled that you can't just take a scattershot approach to the Management plan in making claims. You have to prove them case by case," Zukoski said.
Read the ruling (PDF)