House Conferees Backpedal on Protection of Public Lands

Joint House/Senate Interior Appropriations Conference fails to block Bush administration plans to give away America's natural treasures


Randy Moorman, 202-667-4500 x 201
Cat Lazaroff, 202-667-4500 x 213

Conferees from the House and Senate voted last night to reject attempts to protect national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas from a Bush Administration rule that could turn cow paths and jeep tracks into thousands of miles of bulldozed highways.

The joint House-Senate FY 2004 Interior Appropriations Conference approved a conference report that fails to include a bipartisan House provision aimed at limiting a controversial Bush administration regulation. This House provision would have limited the Bush administration from moving forward with efforts to allow BLM to recognize rights-of-way across public lands where there are now little more than footpaths. The Interior Department funding bill now goes back to both houses for final passage.

In July, the House passed an amendment to the Interior bill seeking to limit the administration’s ability to allow states and counties to turn cow paths, trails, stream bottoms and other paths on federal lands into new highways. The language offered by Interior Appropriations Chairman Charles Taylor (R-NC) revised an earlier measure drafted by Congressman Mark Udall (D-CO), which sought to block the administration from applying the rule to all public lands.

While the Taylor amendment offered less protection to public lands than the Udall amendment, it still represented a great improvement over the Bush administration’s proposal to allow construction of highways across many of America’s greatest wild places. Yet even the lesser protection offered by the Taylor amendment was rejected by the conference committee.

“In July when the House passed the Interior Appropriations bill, many members of Congress saw the Interior Department’s plan for what it is: a massive giveaway of public lands to private interests,” said Randy Moorman, Legislative Research Associate at Earthjustice. “The administration’s rule is illegal as applied to right-of-way claims, and should not be used for such claims anywhere on our public lands. While the House bill protects only some of America’s treasured places, it is a disgrace that the representatives who offered this language have abandoned the protection they fought for just months ago.”

In January 2003, the Interior Department amended an existing rule to make it easier for states and counties to claim rights-of-way for constructed public highways across public lands, using a long-ago repealed provision of the Mining Law of 1866, known as Revised Statute 2477 (R.S. 2477). The amended regulation seeks to allow any entity to file right-of-way claims against federal lands under this old statute, without setting any standards for determining the legitimacy of these claims.

Many states and counties have claimed lines on maps, cow paths, old Indian trails, and wash bottoms as “constructed highways” under the law. For example, in Colorado, Moffat County claims that 2,000 miles of constructed highways already exist, including footpaths, Indian trails, and a 20-mile stretch of the Yampa River Canyon inside Dinosaur National Monument. The County has made similar claims to footpaths or non-existent routes inside a national wildlife refuge, Forest Service roadless lands, and a half-dozen wilderness study areas. Under the Bush Administration’s new rule, rights-of-way for such highways could be turned over to the County, which could then turn them into real highways. For a slideshow of Moffat County’s bogus claims, visit:

Modern laws already exist to approve legitimate road proposals. Title V of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and other legal authorities have led to federal approval for tens of thousands of miles of right-of-way permits across federal lands over the past two decades alone.

“The loophole created by the Bush Administration’s new rule would sidestep these existing laws, limit the public’s voice in the decision making process, and literally pave the way for the ruin of some of the most magnificent landscapes that belong to all Americans,” Moorman said. “Thousands of bogus road claims could be approved threatening millions of acres of public lands. It is clear that the Interior Appropriations Conferees are not interested in protecting any of these wild places.”


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