Mike Noel, a native Utahn who holds a bachelor's degree in zoology and a master's in plant ecology, has lived in the Kanab area for more than 30 years. He's been a Mormon bishop, a basketball coach and a Boy Scout leader, and has run a small cattle ranch, a local restaurant and the local water conservancy district. He has relatives who died of cancer linked to fallout from atomic bomb tests in Nevada, and he's advocated for more benefits for such "downwinders." He was doing environmental impact analyses for the BLM when the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument was created. Noel resented the fact that the feds hadn't consulted with local officials; he also objected to the monument's prohibition of a big coal mine proposed for the Kaiparowits Plateau. He quit his BLM job and channeled his anger into activism in the late 1990s, organizing local chapters of People for the USA, a grassroots group that became one of the loudest mouthpieces of the Sagebrush Rebellion.
Mark Habbeshaw attended an early meeting of People for the USA and struck up a kind of partnership with Noel. Habbeshaw, a retired police detective from Las Vegas who had also worked as a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger on Nevada's Mount Charleston, moved with his wife to 10 acres outside Kanab shortly after the monument was created. He liked riding horses and motorbikes, and he believed that the monument unfairly restricted motorized use and gave the federal government undue influence over the region's land base.
Crippled by a shrinking membership and funding base, People for the USA disbanded in 2000. Noel, however, got elected to the Utah Legislature in 2002, and Habbeshaw won a seat on the Kane County Commission the same year. The two former federal employees used their political power to oppose the feds' road closures and environmentalists' buyouts of grazing permits in the monument.
Habbeshaw risked federal prosecution in August 2003, when he and the county sheriff personally removed 31 closure signs from backcountry roads and trails in the monument. The county officials selected routes they considered to be county highways under RS 2477. "We were absolute heroes to everybody then," says Habbeshaw. "The ranchers were patting us on the back. All the ATVers and the jeep club could go wherever they wanted."
Environmentalists near and far viewed them as outlaws. President George W. Bush's Department of the Interior failed to take action, so in 2005, when the county began putting its own signs inside the monument, opening 63 new routes to motorized travel, The Wilderness Society and SUWA intervened to sue the county for ignoring federal law. The county responded by suing the BLM, claiming that it -- and not the federal government -- had the right to regulate travel where it had RS 2477 claims.
Kane County has claimed rights to more than 60 roads in all. That includes the county's most recent roads lawsuit, filed last October, which seeks control of 49 roads; one is the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, an unpaved road that stretches through the monument to hiking trailheads and an 1880 Mormon landmark where pioneers blasted a route 1,200 feet down a cliff to a river passage now submerged by Lake Powell.
Over the years, federal judges have issued rulings that favor both sides. In September 2009, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Kane County still hadn't proved any valid road rights and that its actions that violated the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says that federal law trumps any conflicting state, county or local law. The court reviewed that decision in an en banc hearing (gathering all of the circuit's judges) and ruled on Jan. 11 that environmentalists have no standing to file that lawsuit. That's a victory for the county, effectively putting the pressure squarely on the feds to represent the pro-regulation viewpoint without help from environmentalists. Meanwhile, at the end of last summer, the Obama administration's lawyers ceded to Kane County the rights to five of the least controversial contested roads (totaling 75 miles) -- the first victory by any Utah county involved in the RS 2477 battles, Habbeshaw says.
Habbeshaw and Noel accuse environmentalists of deliberately dragging out the court cases to wear down local resistance. The county needs to push all of its potential road claims now, rather than later, Habbeshaw says, because witnesses to historical use are getting old and a statute of limitations might prevent later claims. But it's equally clear that the court fights have consumed the local politicians. They've pursued an aggressive strategy even though the monument allows motorized travel on more than 600 miles of roads, and even as other rural counties have sought more practical alternatives, sometimes compromising with the BLM for limited motorized rights.
Kane County officials have not only refused to compromise, they've exacerbated the issue by ceasing to maintain many of the contested roads. As a result, some paved roads and dirt two-tracks that are important to ranchers, hikers and other recreational users have fallen into disrepair and become dangerous.
"That's one of the discrepancies between (Habbeshaw's) opinion and mine," says Ray Wells of the local ATV club. "They're punishing the local community by not maintaining these roads, and I don't think the federal government gives a rat. His passion for what he wants is good. As far as bringing the two sides together and having any successes, it's not happening." (The Obama administration's recent surrender of five roads opens a way for the county to resume maintenance on those roads without the county having to back down.)
Ted Wilson, a former SUWA board member and now a senior environmental adviser to Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, frames the legal battle in similar terms: "Part of it is the personal persuasion and passion of both Mike Noel and Mark Habbeshaw."
Noel, who was among the motorized masses on the Paria Canyon protest ride, makes no apologies: "We have absolutely gone down the road we needed to go." Habbeshaw, who gave an encouraging speech before the protest but didn't drive in the canyon, agrees that the roads cases are a proxy for the general local opposition to the monument and the ongoing battle over wilderness in southern Utah. "New West, Old West, that's what this is about," he says. "Are we going to eventually lose the Old West, the traditions and the culture, (and) shift towards a New West and urban life? You bet we are. But why rush to it?"