Backcountry road deal runs over wilderness

  A nearly three-decade-long fight over who controls backcountry roads crossing federal land in Utah may soon come to an end — and the resolution casts a huge cloud over the future of wilderness protection. In 2000, the state threatened to sue the federal government, claiming ownership of the roads under a Civil War-era law known as RS 2477. On April 9, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, R, dropped the threat, signing an agreement with Interior Secretary Gale Norton (HCN, 2/3/03: Road warriors back on the offensive).

Under the agreement, Utah will stop seeking ownership of unimproved dirt roads in areas such as national parks, national wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. But roads on other federal lands — such as the 2.6 million acres stripped of interim wilderness protection by an April 11 settlement between the federal government and the state — are fair game (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit). If those roads are recognized, surrounding lands will be disqualified for protection as wilderness, which must be roadless.

While state and federal officials say they will include an opportunity for “full public participation” in deciding which roads belong to the state, no mention of public comment is made in the agreement itself. “The doors still haven’t been opened,” says Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). “From what we know of the closed-door sessions, the major decisions have already been made.”

Maps obtained by SUWA under the Freedom of Information Act show the state was preparing to sue for upwards of 100,000 miles of roads, according to McIntosh. Gov. Leavitt won’t say how many roads the agreement could cover, but Utah has spent $4.2 million on a database of roads that it could try to claim. The state will begin submitting claims to the federal government early this summer.
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