The State of Utah today withdrew their first claim for a so-called R.S. 2477 road under a memorandum of understanding struck last year between Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Governor Mike Leavitt. Conservation groups successfully challenged the claim, and assert now that the withdrawal serves as evidence that the R.S. 2477 process is intrinsically flawed and too costly for local governments and taxpayers.
“The State should be looking for real solutions that would resolve this issue while protecting Utah’s canyons and other beautiful wild places,” said Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Instead, the State has spent more than $8 million dollars and the results are a flawed process, a black eye for Utah, and much-loved public lands that are threatened by a confusing and outdated loophole.”
To claim a road, route, or cowpath under the R.S. 2477 loophole, a state or county must first prove that it constructed that claim before the land was protected as a park, refuge, forest or before October 1976, when the law was repealed. Utah presented its first claim, known as the Weiss Highway, with the belief that it was uncontestable. The validity of this claim was questioned in May when research by conservationists proved that the route was built exclusively by federal crews through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and not built by pioneering settlers, as the State had implied. This evidence seems to have led the State to withdraw its claim for the Weiss Highway.
“Utah clearly believed its first claim was a slam dunk, but its flaws show how fraught with problems this process is,” said The Wilderness Society’s Kristen Brengel. “We need a modern solution that will recognize legitimate road claims while also protecting private property and the environment. The current process doesn’t do that.”
Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice noted that the State’s support of an R.S. 2477 claim by Utah’s San Juan County in Canyonlands National Park is indicative of their abuse of this Civil-war era statute. The county is claiming that the Salt Creek streambed is a R.S. 2477 road. The Salt Creek area is known as the park’s treasure trove of archeological artifacts.
“The lawsuit at Canyonlands demonstrates that R.S. 2477 is a tremendous threat to the West’s crown jewels, such as its national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other wild areas,” said Zukoski. “If these places are to be protected for future generations, we need to close the R.S. 2477 loophole. Given the Weiss Highway fiasco, we’ll be checking all future applications very carefully.”
According to Zukoski, a bill (H.R. 1639) proposed by Colorado Congressman Mark Udall would provide for a more commonsense, balanced approach that will protect sensitive public lands and private lands from fraudulent claims and provide clear instructions for recognizing valid claims.