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My Side

William E. Grant

One of the most important Western issues likely to come before the U.S. Senate in the fall session is RS 2477, the antiquated law under which counties in Western states are claiming thousands of miles of abandoned, degraded, or non-existent jeep tracks, cow paths, and hiking trails as public highways.

A secret deal between Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Gale Norton allowed Utah counties to assert rights-of-way claims in designated roadless areas and other federally protected lands and on some private lands. Utah’s example inspired a new outbreak of the County Movement seeking to open almost all protected public lands to motorized travel.

Counties in Colorado, California, Alaska and other western states have jumped on the bandwagon with claims to “roads” and trails that traverse public lands.

The House enacted an amendment to the FY 2004 Department of the Interior appropriations bill that leaves the door open to massive encroachment on protected lands. The Senate will have the opportunity to curtail this land grab, which is supported largely by oil companies and off-road organizations, when it takes up the appropriations bill in the fall session.

So many individuals and groups are opposed to unlimited roads in protected areas that RS 2477 has produced a massive response by those who stand against this land grab.

Landowners in Colorado, New Mexico, California and Alaska are in the courts attempting to protect homes and ranches from off-road vehicle operators who claim RS 2477 rights of way over private land.

Conservationists across the West are gearing up to contest claims that will subject counties to massive legal bills to be paid by local taxpayers.

Outdoor outfitters, who depend on wilderness, demonstrated their opposition when their professional organization threatened to pull its annual meeting from Utah unless Leavitt changed his approach to RS 2477.

In short, a few county commissioners, politicians obligated to special interest groups, the oil industry and some off-road groups seem to be the only supporters of RS 2477 road claims. It is a bad idea that should be stopped before it goes any further.

U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, addressed this problem in the last congress by attaching an amendment to the FY 2004 Department of the Interior appropriations bill that would have prevented the department from expending funds to implement RS 2477 claims. This moratorium would have allowed Congress time to enact changes in the law to regulate future county road claims on federal lands.

Wide bipartisan support virtually assured passage of the Udall amendment, prompting House conservatives to introduce a substitute bill that substantially weakened the original proposal. The substitute amendment exempted only designated wilderness and wilderness study areas, national parks and monuments, and national wildlife refuges from RS 2477 claims. Not protected are wild and scenic river corridors, national forests, national conservation areas, and BLM lands.

When the FY 2004 Interior Department appropriations bill comes before the Senate, RS 2477 will be on the table.

In order to resolve this contentious and divisive issue, the Senate should craft a bill to protect public and private lands from spurious highway proposals by county governments. It should also include a sunset provision that would curtail future road claims under this outmoded statute.

Essential to such a bill is an interpretation of “constructed highway,” and a standardized federal procedure to guide county claims during the sunset period for RS 2477.

Once this final period for the assertion of RS 2477 claims has ended, this legal relic of the “Wild West” should be allowed to pass into richly deserved oblivion.

– Bill Grant of Grand Junction is a retired professor of American culture studies.

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