September 30, 2014

Judges seem skeptical of U.S. in high-stakes Utah road dispute


Kane County, Utah, R.S.2477 road claims.
Phil Taylor
E&E / Greenwire

DENVER -- A federal appeals court yesterday appeared skeptical of the federal government's claims that a lower court had wrongly awarded a Utah county and the state rights of way over desert roads in a case with possible ramifications for Utah's larger bid to assert control over federal lands.

But the three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals offered few hints as to whether it would uphold a district court's decision in March 2013 to award southern Utah's Kane County rights of way over 12 of 15 roads it had claimed, four of which run through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (Greenwire, March 25, 2013).

It's a high-stakes case for Utah, whose counties have staked claims over some 12,000 roads spanning about 36,000 miles over federal lands under a Civil War-era mining law, as well as conservation groups, which note that many of those routes crisscross sensitive wilderness study areas, national parks or other public lands they've proposed remain roadless.

The 10th Circuit's ruling on the Kane case could offer legal precedent for how Utah, counties, the federal government and conservation groups negotiate resolution on thousands of other roads.

Yesterday's proceeding featured oral arguments by Department of Justice attorney David Shilton and Kane County attorney Shawn Welch.

At issue are Kane's claims to 15 roads crossing some 89 miles of federal lands under an obscure 1866 law known as R.S. 2477 that allowed miners and homesteaders to build trails or roads over any public lands not yet reserved or claimed for private use. Utah and its counties can gain title to R.S. 2477 roads if they can prove they were in continuous use for at least 10 years prior to the law's repeal in 1976.

Utah argues the law is a critical bulwark against federal decisions to block access to public lands, but conservation groups see it as one of the greatest threats to preserving wilderness-quality lands in Utah's red rock country.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups last year said Kane successfully proved its case for 12 of the roads. While some are noncontroversial, the North Swag route, which Kane won, cuts through the Paria-Hackberry wilderness study area, which BLM recognized for its roadless characteristics and which environmentalists have eyed for future wilderness designation.

Both Kane County and the United States appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit, but for different reasons.

Kane and Utah argued that Waddoups was wrong to require them to prove the validity of R.S. 2477 claims by "clear and convincing evidence," rather than a lower burden of proof, and had incorrectly ruled that a public water reserve issued by President Coolidge in 1926 precluded R.S. 2477 claims.

DOJ's Shilton argued that the district court had no jurisdiction to decide R.S. 2477 claims for the Sand Dunes, Hancock and Cave Lakes roads because they had never been closed to use and therefore created no "dispute" for the court. It also claimed Waddoups had awarded rights of way widths for North Swag, Swallow Park/Park Wash and Skutumpah roads based on current, rather than 1976, uses.

The judges pressed Shilton to explain the government's first argument over jurisdiction. While the roads remained open, legal title was still in dispute.

Shilton argued the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the tracts, has to take "some affirmative action" to trigger the court's involvement. "The United States has never closed access to those roads," he said. "You need a real dispute."

But Judge Gregory Phillips, an appointee of President Obama, said that line of reasoning could allow "decades and decades and decades" to pass without a resolution of Kane's claims. He said the government stands to benefit from delays because it makes it harder for Utah to prove R.S. 2477 claims.

In addition, Judge Robert Bacharach, another Obama appointee, pressed Shilton to defend the government's claim that Waddoups had wrongly awarded right of way widths for uses that didn't exist in 1976, such as for heavier agriculture vehicles. Bacharach spoke to a need to maintain the "current day's standard of safety."

The third judge, Paul Kelly, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush.

Panel skips enviro arguments

Notably, the panel didn't discuss arguments raised by environmental litigants in the case including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and National Parks Conservation Association.

Those groups argued in friend-of-the-court briefs that Waddoups had failed to consider that a 12-year statute of limitations had expired for the North Swag route, making the county's claim for that route invalid.

They also argued that historical use of alleged R.S. 2477 roads by adjoining landowners, ranchers and others who enjoyed privileged access should not have counted in the Kane County case, nor in any of Utah's other road claims winding their way through the courts.

"It's disappointing," said SUWA attorney Steve Bloch. "There were significant issues that could have steered this hearing in a different direction."

Bloch noted that the 10th Circuit in April had concluded in a separate R.S. 2477 case involving the Salt Creek road through Canyonlands National Park that "proprietary use" of a road doesn't count for determining a valid right of way.

"This is one of the key take-aways from the Salt Creek decision," Bloch said. "This alone could be a basis to send this entire case back to Judge Waddoups."

Conservationists had hoped that finding would come into play in the Kane case yesterday, but it didn't.

Shilton did not raise this point before the court and declined to be interviewed after the arguments.

Welch said the merits of the Salt Creek case should not apply in the Kane case. Unlike Salt Creek, the Kane roads connect other roads and their use was less in dispute, he said.

In the Salt Creek case, the court also had ruled that frequency or intensity of use, not just whether it was used for 10 consecutive years, is important in determining whether a road qualifies as a "public thoroughfare" under R.S. 2477. For example, use by a single cattleman for driving cattle is insufficient, as is intermittent or occasional use by hunters, fishermen, shepherds, farmers and miners, the court said.

This issue also did not come up yesterday.