Debate over what makes a road rages on in Utah


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

This spring, to fulfill a friend’s birthday wish, we traveled from Colorado into Utah, dropped south off of I-70 near Green River on Utah Highway 24, and drove about 30 miles before leaving the pavement. Our destination was the West Rim trailhead in the Horseshoe Canyon Unit of Canyonlands National Park. To get there we bumped and lurched over 30 miles of washboard dirt road, the final few miles of which reminded me of my last dentist appointment. 

Once parked, we hoofed it across the benchlands and over slickrock domes, weaving around pinyon and juniper, then dropped about 750 feet down into the canyon on an old stock trail. From there, we trudged along the sandy wash bottom for miles to the Great Gallery, an astonishing panel of Native American pictographs and petroglyphs unlike anything I’d ever seen. One large, ethereal figure, painstakingly painted on the Navajo sandstone and standing nearly eight feet high, raises goosebumps in my recollection.

It took some effort to reach the Great Gallery and we saw just a handful of people over several hours, one of whom was a national park ranger. Its remoteness, and the quiet that enables introspection there, is part of what makes a visit to Horseshoe Canyon an uncommon and moving experience. 

But a debate that’s spanned a decade in Utah, and may soon come to a head, could make places like Horseshoe Canyon more accessible to the masses by leveling, widening and/or paving historic “highways.” Local government argues it’s a necessity, but wilderness watchers are worried that fragile desert ecosystems and archaeological treasures are at risk.

Understanding what’s going on now with contested rights-of-way in Utah, requires going back to 1866 -- the year the current Capitol Dome was completed; a brazen bank robbery made Jesse James a household name and; while the country was healing from the Civil War -- which had ended only the year before -- settlers were urged West to populate then-barren landscapes.

The 1866 Mining Act was enacted to encourage economic growth through resource extraction. It included what’s now known as Revised Statute 2477 which said, curtly, “…The right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted.” With it, the federal government gave plucky pioneers and prospectors permission to cut routes wherever they needed to, without authorization. This was 30 years before Utah became a state.

R.S. 2477 was a straight-forward statute that remained the law of the land until 1976, when it was repealed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). The repeal didn’t terminate rights-of-way conveyed under R.S. 2477, but required that applicants disclose their plans for use of historic routes, which must ultimately comply with a federal mandate to guard the environment while allowing for resource development. States must also prove the validity of R.S. 2477 routes which, in Utah, means demonstrating 10 years of continuous use prior to the repeal (or before reservation, in the case of national parks and monuments).

At issue in Utah, which is made up of 64 percent federal land, are more than 25,000 mapped segments that cover 45,000 miles. All are on federal land, some in existing wilderness study areas, proposed wilderness tracts, national parks (Canyonlands and Capitol Reef), national monuments (5,156 miles within Grand Staircase Escalante) and a national recreation area (Glen Canyon).

Earlier this month, all but a handful of the state’s 29 counties filed lawsuits against the Department of the Interior  (DOI) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seeking title to those R.S. 2477 rights-of-way. The state also signed on as a plaintiff in each suit. The suits are progressing now, as a 12-year statute of limitations is due to expire on June 14 (the State of Utah notified the DOI in 2000 that it planned to sue over the rights-of-way). 

The true purpose of the lawsuits is more difficult to ascertain. Utah is claiming that access by residents to historic roads is jeopardized by the fed’s unwillingness or inability to resolve R.S. 2477 assertions. Governor Gary Herbert’s front-man on environmental issues, Alan Matheson, has said that the suits are intended to prod the federal government into “reasonable and practical” negotiations over the routes. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that, at a recent news conference, Utah Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow said the routes “are important for family recreation and hunting, economic access to water and minerals, and desert safety.” He said, “The state's intent is not to pave anything. The intent is to perfect the right of Utah and Utahns to access these historical roads.” 

But that seems to fall short of what a commissioner in Duchesne County, one of the counties suing the feds, hopes to get out of it. Kent Peatross said, “We don't need a road down every canyon and ridge. But we need access that allows the general population to experience the public lands in a reasonable manner. Not everyone can walk, not everyone has a horse, and so a vehicle is the easiest and most common way to do that.”

Talk of this type of universal access through largely undeveloped areas fuels opponents, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club, who argue that transferring management of R.S. 2477 roads to local government could despoil valuable landscapes, sensitive species and priceless cultural relics. The fight isn’t about families’ access to private land and favorite picnic spots, they say, but rather state access to resource extraction opportunities. 

Others call it a stunt by a petulant state which simply wants to wrest control from an intrusive parent more of the land within its borders, exemplified by the legislation signed by Governor Herbert last March which demands control of about 30 million acres of federal land in Utah, including national monuments and parks.

Indications of who will win the R.S. 2477 battles when they enter the courts are hardly illuminated from past litigation. In 2010, a U.S. district court recognized that Utah’s Kane County had title to a 27-mile stretch of Skutumpah Road within the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and to four other roads. But, when San Juan County and the State of Utah recently sued the federal government over access to Angel Arch in Canyonlands National Park via Salt Creek Canyon, a federal judge sided with the DOI. In its conclusion, the court said, “For purposes of R.S. 2477, at least absent proof of continuous public use as a public thoroughfare for the requisite amount of time, a jeep trail on a creekbed with its shifting sands and intermittent floods is a by-way, but not a highway.”

When I returned from Horseshoe Canyon I was telling another friend -- a woman who was an avid hiker up until the time she was in a serious car accident this spring -- about its transcendent qualities. When she daydreamed aloud of someday resting her own eyes upon it, I realized, there’s likely no way she could physically get there.

I’ve considered Utah’s R.S. 2477 access fight in light of that fact -- if giving locals title to those routes increases inclusiveness, and allows more people to enjoy the land that’s been reserved for all of us -- why shouldn’t blacktop be slapped down and tour buses herded in? So I asked her about it. She replied that, if I thought the character of the place would  change -- if the spirits that hover within those canyon walls would be driven out by such activity -- she’d rather see it only in photographs. And I do.


Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Images of Horseshoe Canyon courtesy the author; map of contested roads courtesy Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.


John Kingsley
John Kingsley
May 15, 2012 10:17 PM
Dear Heather Hansen,

I was on the ROAD you are talking about around 1973. It starts around The Mailbox and heads to the rim of Horseshoe Canyon. The ROAD then drops down following a ROADbed dug out of slickrock, it was rough, but passable to 4WDs and cattle and such. From your description they even closed the ROAD from The Mailbox to the rim.

I drove about 2/3's of the way down and hiked from there, not because the ROAD ended, but because the lower section had a huge sand dune that most or all 4WDs would have had trouble getting through, even going downhill. The Park Service at the time suggested that 4WDs should stop here and using binoculars, see if the ROAD on the other side was passable or not. From a mile away I doubted that one could see if it was passable.

It was about a little over a mile to the Great Gallery from the sand dune. There was another ROAD that provided access to just south of he sand dune. I imagine that the park service has closed that ROAD too. Coming back out up the sand dune wasn’t easy, but I was in fairly good shape back then.

I can’t imagine people taking the hike you describe inless they are in very, very, very good shape. This keeps 90 per cent of the population from having access to something they have every right to see. The roads leading up to the area should be enough to keep the riffraff out.

“Universal access through largely undeveloped areas” is a complete lie! The area has been used with cattle outfits, and even has had oil drilling in the area. The area is not undeveloped in any rational person.
Your scare tactics don’t make any sense. No one is suggesting building a paved road a providing access for tour buses. That is complete nonsense, you know it and I know it.

Overall your column is better than most environment writers. You made a legitimate effort to show both sides of the issue. Thank you.

John Kingsley
St. Paul, MN
Scott Berry
Scott Berry Subscriber
May 16, 2012 03:16 PM
I own a home within a half mile of one of the most famous pictograph panels in Utah. The panel has been accessible by a Class D county road, passable to most vehicles, most of the time, for more than 50 years. I've been keeping an eye on the panel for more than 30 years. I'm sad to report that the rate of vandalism to the panel has been increasing, particularly in the last 10 years. Each month of the summer, there is a new crop of initials and names, written in charcoal, or carved directly into the face of the panel. The federal and state agencies are well aware of the accelerating damage, but given public road access to the site, there is nothing they can do to stop further damage. The hard fact that is a small proportion of visitors will always look for ways to damage the resource. They leave in a few hours, but the damage they cause lasts forever. No amount of education is ever going to eliminate this sort of behavior. If we, as a nation, truly want to preserve these treasures, we ought to be looking for ways to make access more difficult, not easier. Granted, some people will never be able to access these places because of their physical condition, in the same way that I'll never climb Mt. Everest. The view that the world should be "flattened out", so that everyone has access to every wonderful place, regardless of physical condition, skill or preparation, is a recipe for the diminishment of our national character. We can only hope and pray that there will never be drive up access to the Great Gallery.

Scott Berry
Torrey, Utah
John Kingsley
John Kingsley
May 20, 2012 02:32 AM
Thanks for your well written and truthful response to my comment. The statement about being next to a road increases vandalism is very understandable. The pristine ones I have seen are dependent of how far they are from a road, and the easier the road the more the destruction. But Horseshoe Canyon is already hard to get to. The trailhead could have been kept at the rim of Horseshoe Canyon instead of making people walk the 2 or 3 miles from the main road. It would still be a hard drive and a hard hike see it.

I am a roads person and love traveling on them and find out where they go. But it really gets to me when people dishonestly call a road “an old stock trail” and use scare tactics like when “blacktop be slapped down and tour buses herded in?” No one is going to put a blacktopped road or make way for tour buses down to anywhere near Horseshoe Canyon. Why make such a off-the-wall statement when it is in nobodys intention to do it?

There are Interstates, expressways, roads and jeep trails. These are all roads and shouldn’t be downgraded to a stock trail for the purpose of making it easier to close them.

John Kingsley
St. Paul, MN
Bill Schiffbauer
Bill Schiffbauer Subscriber
Feb 23, 2014 05:51 AM
While there are areas many of us can not get to I do not believe everyplace should be available to everyone. To make everyplace available degrades the quality of the experience for those who can make the trec. As for as Horseshoe Cyn I went there for the first time last spring. Yes the road is bumpy but not unreasonable. As far as the hike in it is not all that big a deal for a person in reasonable health. I am 70 and while younger folks may have passed me I did just fine. We need some places where a person does not just drive up, stay in the car while the wife jumps out to take a picture, and drive on the the next roadside pull out. Agree, remove the lawyer post.
Scott Berry
Scott Berry Subscriber
Feb 23, 2014 06:05 PM
It's unfortunate that the the legal framework for talking about R2477 roads forces us to foucs about what's a road, and what's a stock trail. The truth is that virtually every road in Utah was originally a stock trail, including the route into Horseshoe Canyon. And eventually, someone drove a jeep down the trail, and then a truck, and then a car, and then a mini-van. The question that we should be addressing is whether allowing vehicle access to any given spot on the globe will best serve the interests of the ecological community that exists in that location, and then whether easier (always easier) access serves the values that deserve our allegiance; independence, self-sufficiency, and exploration. In the courtroom, lawyers may have no choice but to talk about imaginary distinctions. Outside the courtroom, we ought to talk about what matters.
John Kingsley
John Kingsley
Feb 23, 2014 08:07 PM
Thanks for your admission that it us a road, although I doubt that cars or mini-vans were ever able to negotiate either the east or west side entrances to Horseshoe Canyon. Mini-van?? What does that have to do with anything? Next thing you’ll be talking about rich people in motor homes pulling up right next to the Great Gallery, anything to confuse the issue. It would obviously cost too much to build a highway down into the canyon.

All I’m saying is that one should be able to drive up to the rim and then hike down That isn’t asking too much and will keep out enough people to even satisfy your need to keep the public out. This is what this discussion is about, the mile or so of hiking in a flat area with very uninteresting scenery to get to the rim. In my opinion that doesn’t add to anyone’s wilderness experience.