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In a show of unity, the Colorado Senate passed a resolution reflecting an unprecedented degree of agreement between property owners and conservationists.

Introduced by GOP Senate President John Andrews, “Senate Resolution 004” asks the Colorado congressional delegation to support a federal solution to the Revised Statute (R.S.) 2477 roads claims issue. The bipartisan 34 to 1 vote sends a strong message to Congress to decide once and for all how these asserted highway claims on public lands will be adjudicated.

R.S. 2477, a Civil-War-era statute that granted rights of way for constructed highways over federal lands, was repealed in 1976 with the caveat that pre-existing valid rights of way would be honored.

This loophole is being exploited by county and state governments and overzealous off-road vehicle riders. The former claim that thousands of miles of cowpaths, hiking trails, and jeep tracks across our National Parks, National Monuments, wildlife refuges and wilderness are really county-controlled “constructed highways,” while the latter view it as an invitation to ride roughshod over public lands and private property, asserting that “highway” rights of way exist.

Permitting rough paths to be claimed as highways across National Parks and other open space would devastate wildlife habitat, water quality, and archeological resources.

Sen. Andrews’ resolution cites many of these adverse consequences to private and public lands as a result of the Bush Administration’s interpretation of R.S. 2477, and clearly asks Congress to quickly resolve this issue. As the resolution points out, reformation of R. S. 2477 would not preclude claims to roads on public land under other existing federal legislation.

After Interior Secretary Gale Norton cut a back-room deal with former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt making it easy for the Interior Department to surrender any federal interest in R.S. 2477 rights of way claimed by that state, Governor Owens’ administration asserted its intent to grab thousands of miles of primitive trails on public lands. At risk are Dinosaur National Monument, Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge, and wild, roadless lands across the state.

R.S. 2477 also subjects private lands to right-of-way claims that could cost property owners thousands of dollars to clear up in court.

Sen. Andrews’ resolution highlights the impact of R.S. 2477 on private property. According to Andrews, R.S. 2477 “has been illegitimately used in recent years to force roads across private land for public access to federal lands, including lands accessible by alternative routes.”

He further points out that such incursions have resulted in “conflicts concerning passage over private property that have in some cases resulted in litigation, allegations of trespass, and property damage.”

Sen. Andrews’ leadership in the State Senate is complemented by Representative Mark Udall’s leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Udall introduced legislation last year that addresses the concerns raised by Andrews.

If the Colorado GOP delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives would focus and sign on as co-sponsors of the Udall bill, it would almost certainly be passed and sent on to the Senate. Support by Colorado’s U.S. Senators would go a long way toward assuring passage in that body.

For the sake of Colorado’s ” and America’s ” national parks, national monuments, wild areas and private lands, it is time to sunset R.S. 2477, responsibly and quickly. Only an act of Congress can end this land grab and create a rational program for resolving valid highway claims by states and counties.

Senate President Andrews, 33 other Colorado Senators, and Representative Mark Udall recognize this need. The U.S. Congress needs to hear their message and act quickly to end the land grab.

Bill Grant is a retired professor who taught American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University. He now lives in Grand Junction, where he enjoys hiking on quiet trails.

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