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Norton eases road claims

 

In a parting gesture last month, outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton opened the door for counties and states to claim control of roads crossing federal lands managed by her department.

Revised Statute 2477, enacted in 1866, allowed states and counties to construct highways across public land (HCN, 12/20/04: The road to nowhere). Although the act was repealed in 1976, its right-of-way provisions still apply to roads created before then. The statute is controversial; counties see it as a way to manage local access, while conservationists fear an ever-expanding network of roads. In 1997, then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt ordered his agencies not to consider RS-2477 claims.

Norton’s order, based on a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from last year, reopens the RS-2477 process, and says that state laws, rather than federal, should be used to assess the validity of claims. The new guidelines, says Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society, are tantamount to "surrendering management of roads and routes within these units to local governments."

The order also says that trails that were not historically open to vehicles can still be considered "highways." That flexibility has environmentalists worried that some counties will convert cow paths into motorized routes.

But for county governments around the West, the order could end years of frustration by allowing them to conduct routine maintenance on existing roads. "We like it," says Paul Sunderland, attorney for San Juan County, Colo., and a longtime county-rights advocate, "and I doubt seriously that it represents the roading of the entire West."