Friday news roundup: Road rage and a wild lands successor

 

Several Utah counties and the state think the Bureau of Land Management is playing troll in a billy goat saga by limiting access to several hundred road segments that cross public lands.

County and state officials want to wrest road control from the BLM, and hope U.S. District Court Magistrate Brooke Wells will grant them quiet title to 94 roads in Garfield County and 710 road segments in Kane County currently under bureau authority. (subscription only).  The lawsuits, filed last week and Monday, include some roads in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Carbon County, Utah also filed suit Monday over 34 roads.

The counties want the roads so they can use and maintain them. High Country News writer Christine Hoekenga wrote about one of them -- Bald Knoll Road in Utah -- which was historically used for hunting, camping, wood-gathering, mining and horseback riding. The feud is one that has lasted decades, resulting in tension, lawsuits, and even bulldozing and grading road sections in land considered for wilderness designation, in wilderness study areas or national monuments.

An 1866 provision giving counties control over roads, Revised Statute 2477, is a thorn in the side of BLM land managers and enviros hoping to close off some roads through public lands.

The statute was repealed by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which added more restrictions to rights-of-way on public land. But there's a loophole: states, counties or landowners can stake a road claim under the old statute once they cough up proof it has been in continuous use prior to 1976 or before land was stamped with a designation halting road use. High Country News contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis wrote about the evolution of the statute and a new federal rule that could allow entities to have their road disputes settled more quickly in 2003. A 2007 U.S. District Court decision ruled road claims must go to federal court before the bureau can validate them, though informal decisions on the part of the BLM allowing prospective title owners to use disputed roads continued to cloud that decision.

“We have strong evidence that these roads were used before 1976 and some even pre-date Utah’s statehood in 1896," said Assistant Attorney General Harry Souvall of roads in Garfield and Kane Counties.

The state claims using alternate routes due to blocked public land roads is more difficult in its Kane County lawsuit. From the Associated Press:

In the remote, red rock country that defines southern Utah, sometimes the only way to feasibly travel between small towns, ranches and scenic areas is by braving rutted dirt roads [sic] century-old wagon trails, Kane County Commissioner Doug Heaton said.

But opponents, who worry giving counties control over roads means traffic will run rampant over sensitive, protected public lands or those being considered for wilderness designation, argue some roads are only for individual access or not as important to the public as first thought. So far, federal courts have teeter-tottered, granting major rights-of-way but balking on disputed ones like dry creek beds. It is unclear what will happen with the current lawsuits—the agency refused to comment on pending legislation.

Wilderness revisited

As Utah contends with road rights, Interior Secretary Salazar is making another attempt to preserve wilderness areas in the West.

On Nov. 10, Secretary Salazar released a report recognizing 18 new backcountry wilderness or conservation area designations in nine Western states he thinks Congress should consider for protection.  The proposal is the next step in the administration's America's Great Outdoors Initiative, meant to engage Americans in working to protect public land and boost recreation and tourism employment.

Salazar's proposal is a new development in a history of attempts to determine the Bureau of Land Management's place in wilderness management. High Country News contributing editor Matt Jenkins wrote about Salazar's failed attempt last December to allow BLM managers to identify and protect landscapes with wilderness characteristics under a new name but wilderness designation equivalent: "wild lands." The most recent proposal will require approval from Congress if any of the lands are to become wilderness. That doesn't seem likely, though; it's drawn criticism from the Senate committee and other legislators.

"The appropriate process for creating new wilderness areas on federal land is to petition Congress after the federal land management agencies have completed their land management plans and recommendations," said Senate committee Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Other legislators also said Salazar's announce and wait approach was heavy-handed: Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah said the work should depend on collaboration with locals (subscription only): "As our success in Washington County shows, wilderness proposals must be the result of a grass-roots, stakeholder-driven process, rather than a top-down decree."

"Land use decisions should be based on consensus with the local community, not the collaborative efforts of unelected bureaucrats and big money special interest groups," said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R),Mont.

The Administration claims it already has that local support.

"Local communities and elected officials from both sides of the aisle have developed conservation proposals that deserve serious consideration and action by Congress," said Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes, who co-authored the report with BLM Director Bob Abbey. In his letter of introduction to the report, Secretary Salazar said all of the areas chosen had "significant local support."

Some states remained notably absent from the list: Wyoming officials failed to recommend any public lands for possible protection even after a request this year from BLM to do so. They claimed the bureau's actions did not acknowledge revenue local governments garner from mineral development that might be prevented if areas were designated as wilderness.

The report praised Arizona's state delegation for past wilderness protection efforts—namely the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act of 1990—though it had no recommendations for the state.

The recommendations aren't likely to do well in Congress, where Murkowski warned wilderness by executive order would be rejected.

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

Image of Utah's Cottonwood Canyon Road courtesy Flickr user pspechtenhauser.

Image of Oregon's Wild Rogue Wilderness courtesy Bureau of Land Management.