A flurry of bulldozing in three southern Utah counties has led to one arrest, federal lawsuits and miles of newly improved roadways through wilderness study areas and the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
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.
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."
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.
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.
ignored the order by blading 10.7 miles of road across BLM land
being considered for wilderness designation.
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statute, which Congress repealed 20 years ago.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.
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."
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
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
All four bulldozed roads are
within the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National
Another lawsuit accuses Kane County of
blading approximately 15 miles of roads within three wilderness
study areas: Moquith Mountain, Burning Hills and
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 reports
from Salt Lake City, Utah.