Salt Lake City, UT
Earthjustice, working closely with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the law firm of Jenner & Block, scored a victory for Utah’s red-rock wilderness areas today, when District Court Judge Tena Campbell soundly rejected three counties’ ownership claims to dirt tracks across the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and wildlands near Canyonlands National Park. The counties were attempting to use a repealed 19th century loophole called R.S. 2477 to claim seldom used jeep tracks as “constructed highways” that belonged to the county. Judge Campbell’s ruling today reaffirmed her 2001 decision that haphazard jeep driving cannot amount to “highway construction” under the old law.
“Judge Campbell’s ruling puts a big stop sign in front of those who would use this old loophole to bulldoze through America’s national parks, national monuments, and wild lands,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski. Earthjustice and Jerry Epstein at Jenner & Block represented the Sierra Club. Attorneys from SUWA were also key members of the legal team in the case. “Vigilante vandals seeking to turn dirt paths into real highways know now that they can’t get away with damaging our nation’s precious natural heritage.”
Earthjustice sued the Bureau of Land Management in 1996 to get the agency to stop San Juan, Garfield, and Kane Counties from using heavy equipment to scrape roadways out of seldom-used two-tracks through the new national monument and other wild areas of Utah’s red-rock canyon country. The counties did not have permission from BLM to blade the routes and BLM eventually joined conservationists in seeking to stop the counties’ destructive actions.
The creation of county highway rights-of-way would prevent the lands from gaining wilderness protection, and thus prevent the protection of such lands from oil and gas drilling and off-road vehicle abuse. Judge Campbell today reaffirmed her 2001 decision that because the little-used trails were never constructed for public use and did not provide access to particular locations, they could not be claimed as highway rights-of-way under R.S. 2477.
Zukoski says he expects the state will appeal the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. “The Utah attorney general’s office has already indicated that they plan to appeal today’s ruling,” said Zukoski. “It’s a shame that Utah continues to fight for its extreme position that could turn national parks and monuments in the state into a spaghetti web of highways.”
Other conservationists agreed. “This was the right decision,” said Heidi McIntosh of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “It will lay to rest countless phantom road claims across treasured national landscapes.”
“This decision should send a message to the Bush administration that the courts will support management decisions which adhere to current federal law,” said Sierra Club representative Lawson LeGate. “However, the administration can expect to be held accountable if it proceeds on a parallel track of giving away other public land rights-of-way under a law that was repealed by Congress nearly 30 years ago.”