Environmental groups filed a lawsuit today to force disclosure of information about closed-door negotiations between the federal government and the State of Utah concerning the state’s claim to more than 10,000 roads and trails crossing federal lands. The roads and trails cross national parks, national monuments, national forests, wilderness areas, and other federal lands, including Utah’s most pristine and environmentally sensitive areas. Recognition of the State’s claims by the federal government would relinquish federal authority over these roads and trails. Conservationists are concerned because in the past the federal government has given away rights of way under similar circumstances.
The lawsuit, filed today in the federal district court in Washington DC, alleges that the Department of Interior is violating the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to release documents pertaining to the negotiations. The state and federal government have been negotiating to recognize some of the claims, but have not included the public in the negotiations. The federal Bureau of Land Management, which is negotiating with Utah, responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance by refusing to produce any documents pertaining to the negotiations, except for a few emails setting up meetings.
“The government needs to open the doors and let the public in on its handling of these claims,” said Eric Huber of Earthjustice, one of the attorneys who filed the suit. “The public, which owns these federal lands, has a right to know if they are going to be given away in secret negotiations. We should not be forced to wait until a deal is struck to find out what they intend to do with these lands.”
On June 14, 2000 the State of Utah took legal action to establish the state’s alleged rights to more than 10,000 roads, tracks, and trails through the federal lands in all 29 Utah counties. The state is making these claims under a century-old statute known as RS 2477, which states that rights-of-way, established before a federal land was reserved, are held by the state. If the claims are found valid, then the state (or counties) conceivably may use, grade, widen or even pave these alleged roads, regardless of the nature of the federal land through which they travel. Many of these disputed areas are considered roadless by wilderness proponents and recognition of roads would put them out of bounds to any future inclusion in federally protected wilderness areas.
“Any time the government deals secretly with special interests, it sends a clear red flag,” said Leslie Jones of The Wilderness Society. “This issue is about control of the federal public lands. Talks should not be limited to one segment of the community. These claims potentially impact all the citizens of Utah and people across the country who are concerned with the future of wilderness.”
Earthjustice is representing The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness
Association in this legal action.