Two Utah counties can't unravel protections limiting off-road vehicle use on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, by alleging, without proof, that they have historic rights-of-way through the monument, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver ruled today.
The appeals court blocked Kane and Garfield counties' broad seizure of wash bottoms and seldom-used jeep tracks as "highways" under a repealed 19th Century law known as R.S. 2477. The counties sought to use the law 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 U.S.
The appeals court decisions affirms a judgment by U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Jenkins of Salt Lake City dismissing the counties' case.
The suit was opposed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The groups were represented in court by Earthjustice.
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 (BLM), and in the meantime that any provisions protecting the desert environment from dirt bikes, ATVs, and other off-road vehicles be overturned.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the counties must prove whether they have any valid claims.
"This is a great day for the Grand Staircase," said Ted Zukoski, one of the Earthjustice attorneys on the case. "The monument plan protects nearly two million acres of wildlife habitat, streams, 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 appeals court wisely rejected the counties' challenge."
Read the ruling (PDF)