The bulldozing, ordered by county commissioners in San Juan, Garfield and Kane counties, is the most serious challenge yet to federal land managers trying to maintain wilderness qualities in areas they manage. It is also a sign of increasing anger and frustration by county commissioners in southern Utah.
"They want to blade these roads so they can assure there will never be wilderness," said angry activist Ken Sleight of the recent confrontations. "It's tragic, but that's the way it is. They're ticked off about wilderness and the president's establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument."
On Oct. l8, the federal government filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, asking for trespass damages and injunctions against the three counties. U.S. Attorney Scott Matheson Jr. is seeking a permanent court order to halt further road grading in disputed areas and monetary damages to rehabilitate the roads already bladed.
A handful of people, including Sleight, tried to stop the road-building by San Juan County Sept. 30 by standing in front of a county road-grader on Hart's Point near Canyonlands National Park.
One protester, 33-year-old Dan Kent of Moab, Utah, was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and "failure to disperse."
His arrest came after the Bureau of Land Management's area resource manager, Kent Walter, tried to stop the county with a cease-and-desist order.
The county ignored the order by blading 10.7 miles of road across BLM land being considered for wilderness designation.
At issue is the county's assertion that it has legal rights of way across federal lands anywhere a vehicle has been driven and left a track. Utah counties claim such rights of way under a Civil War-era statute called RS 2477, which states, "The right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted."
For years, Utah counties have feuded with the BLM over the interpretation of the statute, which Congress repealed 20 years ago. Counties argue that any route across public land is a legal right of way which the county can claim as a road and maintain.
The BLM does not consider faint, revegetated jeep tracks as roads, and will not rule out such tracked areas for wilderness study. The Hart's Point land is not an official BLM Wilderness Study area, but the Utah Wilderness Coalition wants it included as part of its 5.7 million-acre wilderness proposal.
San Juan County officials admit the road grader was intentionally sent out to make a point and force a lawsuit.
"Until a judge tells us they're not our roads, we're going to continue," County Commissioner Bill Redd said. "Just because someone doesn't like it doesn't mean he can tell me to quit."
County commissioners said after roads were bladed on Hart's Point, they might move on to Cedar Mesa, the archaeologically rich land which includes Grand Gulch.
"If they so much as put a blade down and move one inch (on Cedar Mesa), we'll file an ARPA (Archaeological Resource Protection Act) violation against them," the BLM's Walter warned while inspecting the road-grading on Hart's Point.
The federal lawsuits allege, in addition to San Juan's grading, that Garfield County in early October graded short sections of road on the Right Hand Collet Canyon Trail and in the Devil's Garden Wilderness Study Area. They say the county graded longer six-mile sections in both Cedar Wash and the Wolverine Loop.
All four bulldozed roads are within the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Another lawsuit accuses Kane County of blading approximately 15 miles of roads within three wilderness study areas: Moquith Mountain, Burning Hills and Paria-Hackberry.
And Garfield County is being sued by the National Park Service for bulldozing inside Capitol Reef National Park along the Burr Trail. That Feb. 13 bulldozing by Garfield County crews over the objections of the Park Service resulted in a widening of the road from its original 18 feet width to as much as 32 feet wide. The Park Service says the county excavated away hillsides which had framed the east entrance to the park (HCN, 4/15/96).
Federal attorneys in the Burr Trail case were quoted in court documents as saying Garfield County has a habit of "bulldozing first and apologizing later."
* Larry Warren
Larry Warren reports from Salt Lake City, Utah.