About 63 percent of Utah's land belongs to the federal government -- the second- or third-highest percentage among all the states. In Kane County, the feds own about 83 percent.
And backcountry driving on that federal land is soaring. The number of all-terrain vehicles in Utah (also known as off-road vehicles, or ORVs, and including motorcycles and dune buggies) has more than tripled since 1998, amounting to nearly 180,000 today. Kane County residents are even more likely to own an ATV than the average Utahn, according to a survey by Utah State University, and ATVers usually recreate on federal land.
Those are some of the reasons why, in May 2009, people on 300-plus ATVs poured into the wide canyon of the Paria River, 40 miles east of Kanab and inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In a protest organized by the local Tea Party enclave, the UT/AZ (that's "oo-taz") Patriots, they revved up and drove in the riverbed, disobeying a U.S. Bureau of Land Management policy that prohibits motorized recreation in the canyon.
According to many of the protesters, the route dates back more than a century, to when Mormon pioneers established a town in the canyon. They see it as a scenic way past the remnants of the settlement and an old movie set, north to some surviving small towns. "In the summertime, it's a great ride. You splash through like little kids," says Ray Wells, president of the Utah/Arizona ATV Club, who lives in Kanab and participated in the protest. "You ride in the river bottom most of the time, and you probably cross (the river) a couple of hundred times up and back, so any tracks that may ever be there, every time there's a flood, which is multiple times a year, they're gone."
The BLM tried to halt off-road traffic in the canyon and elsewhere in its first travel-management plan for the monument in 2000. Kane County sued, but an appeals court upheld the travel plan in 2009. Portions of the canyon pass through a wilderness study area and critical habitat for Mexican spotted owls. Other reaches don't meet state water-quality standards due to natural salinity, and a state report suggests continued traffic would further degrade water quality.
Wells and other off-road drivers view the BLM's closure of the Paria Canyon route as a test case, since it's a popular and highly visible trail with a history of use. Kane County's government -- and Utah's state government -- argue that the trail belongs to the county under Revised Statute 2477, a rule tucked inside the 1866 Lode Mining Act, which granted rights of way to counties and states "for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses." The rule was originally intended to encourage the development and mineral exploration of the Western frontier, but the modern Sagebrush Rebellion has made it notorious.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 prohibited new RS 2477 roads, in order to preserve remaining wild landscapes, while allowing counties or states to make claims to older roads if they could prove continuous use. Since then, D.C. policy-makers have batted around interpretations of the law. When the Sagebrush Rebellion ignited in the 1980s -- in support of resource extraction and local control of public lands -- President Ronald Reagan's Interior Department loosely construed RS 2477 to allow primitive trails to be claimed as county rights of way. In the '90s, President Clinton's Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, who was instrumental in the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante and 15 other national monuments, leaned the other way, imposing a moratorium on processing almost all RS 2477 claims.
If counties and states can claim ownership, they can set rules about access. And the implications are even wider: Roads in rural areas impede the designation of new wilderness areas, which prohibit motorized travel and most resource development.
"I think the RS 2477 issue is really a stand-in for every other federal public-land issue," says Heidi McIntosh, associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which has battled Kane County in court over roads issues. "It's not really about roads, and it's not really about transportation, because the RS 2477s that are controversial are the dirt two-tracks and trails that are dangerous to drive and lead nowhere."
But ATVers enjoy navigating those risky routes to nowhere. Many southern Utahns already blamed the federal government for the shutdown of uranium mines and timber operations. Clinton simply ignited more anger by creating the monument, and some key local leaders fanned the flames.