An unpaved road to spectacular sandstone Angel Arch in Canyonlands National Park has become another battleground in the continuing war between rural county commissioners and the federal government.
The Park Service restricted motorized travel along the primitive Salt Creek Road in 1995, reducing the number of vehicles per day from 70 to 20. Since the road crosses Salt Creek countless times, environmentalists argued that even limited travel damaged streamside plants and animals and contaminated surface water. In 1998, a district judge agreed, and the Park Service closed the 10-mile-long road in the Needles District.
Then, in August the circuit court reversed the ruling and sent the matter back to district court for further review. Commissioners in San Juan County, Utah, who have long sought control of roads on federal lands in their county (HCN, 10/28/96), saw the reversal as a victory: They told the Park Service to reopen the road by Dec. 1.
Though the agency refused, county planner Ed Scherick is undeterred. He says that since the road existed prior to the park's creation in 1964, it belongs to the county.
But the commissioners' position was weakened on Oct. 25, when a federal judge ruled in a similar case. The judge said Garfield County illegally improved a road within Capitol Reef National Park in south-central Utah in 1996. Environmental groups say this decision hobbles other local road claims.
Meanwhile, Canyonlands Park Superintendent Jerry Banta says the Salt Creek Road will remain closed to motorized travel until the park studies the impacts of traffic on the creek. He says the park is trying to find "a better answer" than full closure, and road realignment or seasonal closures are possibilities.
The parties met on Nov. 17 in Salt Lake City, but the issue was not resolved. Says Banta, "There's not an answer that will make everybody happy."
Copyright 2000 HCN and Gail Binkly