Counties Can't Unilaterally Seize Control Over National Park Trails, Federal Court Rules


Ruling affects lands owned by all Americans


Jim Angell, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9621

A federal court has ruled that Utah counties do not own routes within national parks, national monuments and wilderness study areas merely because they say so.

“This is a terrific day for all Americans who treasure our public lands,” said Jim Angell, an attorney with Earthjustice’s Denver office.  “The issue here is whether the counties can seize control over federal land based on claims that have never been proven, and the court has flatly rejected that.”

In 2005, Kane County Utah adopted an ordinance that opened hundreds of miles of routes to dirt bikes, all terrain vehicles and other off-highway vehicles (OHVs).  In so doing, the county claimed as its own every hiking trail within county borders in Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The county ordinance also opened to OHVs scores of routes within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that the federal Bureau of Land Management had closed in order to protect fragile desert landscapes from the scarring and disturbance that can accompany OHV use.

The August 24 ruling was a victory for The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, represented by Earthjustice attorneys as well as former Earthjustice attorney Robert Wiygul and attorneys at SUWA.  The Wilderness Society and SUWA sued the county for violating the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause which says U.S laws take precedence over conflicting local ordinances on federal land.   Kane County tried to get the case tossed out of court, in part, on the grounds that the county already owned rights-of-way to the routes under an arcane 1866 law known as R.S. 2477.  But federal district court Judge Tena Campbell ruled that the county’s mere claim of ownership of rights-of-way was meaningless unless backed up with proof that the routes meet the test set out in the 19th Century law, something Kane County has so far refused to offer. 

Judge Campbell also upheld the right of The Wilderness Society and SUWA to bring suit against the county, concurring with their argument that their members’ enjoyment of the monument’s backcountry could potentially be harmed by OHV use that has been prohibited by federal land managers.

What Campbell’s ruling means, Earthjustice attorney Angell said, is that Kane County will now have to provide documented evidence that it owns the roads in question when the case goes to trial, perhaps early in 2007.

“They claim they have lots of proof,” he said.  “Now we’re going to have our day in court and they’re going to have to show they are entitled to these roads.  Until they prove it, they’re not free to simply take control of these routes on some of America’s most celebrated public lands.”

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