Utah wilderness recently got a reprieve. In late June, a district judge ruled that three counties had illegally graded 16 undeveloped jeep tracks and footpaths located within Bureau of Land Management-maintained wilderness study areas and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The judge concluded that Garfield, Kane and San Juan counties had for several years misused an obscure 19th century statute called R.S. 2477 that allows local governments to construct highways across federal lands.
"They stretched R.S. 2477 beyond its limits," says Heidi McIntosh, lead counsel in the lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. She says the counties thought they could stop wilderness designation by making small improvements to these faint trails, in order to encourage people to use them. The counties, she says, could then claim the used tracks as county roads and draw on that as a wedge against wilderness designation. "The judge's decision is going to be a red light for those who want to use R.S. 2477 as a weapon against wilderness."
Garfield County Commissioner Maloy Dodds says the county has no plans to turn the tracks into highways. He maintains, however, that the county's aim is to preserve access to remote federal lands for people such as wood-collectors, cattlemen and mining and oil interests.
"Wilderness is no use to us," Dodds says. "All wilderness does is tie up natural resources, and resources are what made America great."
The counties plan to appeal the decision.