Utah state and local officials reached a landmark settlement with the federal government to open access to roadways once closed due to a federal wilderness study area. The agreement could serve as a model for claims on thousands of other roads Utah counties have presented against the government.
Juab County, the Utah Attorney General’s Office, and the federal Bureau of Land Management filed a joint consent decree in the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, which requires approval by a federal judge.
State Will Enforce Restrictions
The settlement gives Juab County ownership of three dirt roads accessing the Deep Creek Mountains. The three roads are Trout Creek, Granite, and Toms Creek roads.
The BLM agreed to remove fallen trees blocking the roads and turn them over to Juab County. State and local officials agreed to ban motorized vehicles between December and May each year and strictly enforce a ban on off-road motorized vehicle traffic in the wilderness study area. State and local officials can repair the dirt roads but must leave them in their “primitive” state. The agreement prohibits paving, improving, expanding, and performing routine maintenance on the roads.
Juab County also agreed to abandon some of its right-of-way claims in the wilderness study area as part of the settlement.
Model for Future Settlements
“Today’s agreement serves as a model for resolving road disputes going forward. We can find ways to agree, and I applaud the county and all stakeholders for proving this approach can work,” said Gov. Gary Herbert in a statement. “My hope is that we will continue to work to resolve RS2477 disputes.”
Utah counties have filed an additional 29 lawsuits against the federal government, encompassing more than 12,000 miles of roads. State officials plan on additional lawsuits regarding an additional 24,000 miles of roads.
Statute Recognized Rights of Way
A nineteenth century statute, known as R.S. 2477, granted the state ownership of roads crossing federal lands. The statute granted states and counties rights-of-way across federal lands to meet transportation needs during the 1800s. Congress repealed the law in 1976 but recognized state ownership of all roads the state could prove state residents regularly used for 10 years prior to repeal of the law. The federal government and environmental activist groups have vigorously challenged the state’s road-use claims.
Parties Express Support
Three environmental activist groups participated in the negotiations and signed on to the settlement agreement.
“Conservation groups have been permitted to intervene in several of these cases and are actively working to defend the United States’ title to these claims,” Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance legal director Stephen Bloch said in a statement.
State Rep. Roger Barrus (R- Centerville) told Environment & Climate News the road settlement will benefit Utah residents and protect their access to recreation areas.
“If Juab County leaders and our state public lands officials are comfortable that the agreement is in the best interest of the citizens of Juab County, our state and nation, then it's a good decision. It's the kind of decision that could be made more easily and pragmatically if the lands were under state ownership and management rather than burdened by red tape in a litigious federal system,” Barrus said.
Barrus sponsored H.B. 142, which he said is “designed to gather credible information in a report to reflect economic trends and management practices of public lands under federal control. With that information, Utah can better project how to best manage those lands for the benefit of the public and the citizens of our state.”
“The whole idea of transferring federal public lands to Utah is to improve how they are managed,” he added.