Victory for Wild Southern Utah!

Illegal road sign in Kane County, Utah.

Even if you haven’t been there, you probably know that the federal public lands in south-central Utah contain some of the most spectacular red rock canyons, scenic vistas, and opportunities for solitude in the nation.

This region is home to such famous wild landmarks as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, and other wild places.

These places have been a center of controversy for years due to a few colorful commissioners in Kane County, Utah trying to usurp the authority of federal land management agencies. The commissioners have attempted to keep roads open on federal lands that have been closed to protect resources such as wildlife, streams, archeological sites, wilderness and monuments. Some commissioners have gone so far as to remove federal signs and to replace them with their own “open road” signs. Besides being confusing and potentially dangerous to the public, such actions also threaten to damage or destroy environmentally sensitive areas, by encouraging cars and off-road vehicles to enter the areas.

Thankfully, a recent court decision should put this controversy to rest. On September 1st,
the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld federal restrictions and closures of motorized travel on federal lands meant to protect resources. The court affirmed a lower court decision holding that such closures take precedence over unproved claims to rights-of-ways by counties.

This case arose out of a series of events beginning in 2003 when officials from Kane County tore out more than 30 BLM signs that closed motorized routes in the GSENM, wilderness lands, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Over the next several years, the county took actions to attempt to open closed areas to motorized vehicles on these federal lands, such as erecting their own “open road” signs and passing ordinances claiming ownership of these routes.

The county claims it owns the routes under a Civil War-era law titled R.S. 2477. Although repealed, R.S.2477 allows agencies, groups and individuals to assert rights-of-way across federal lands if they can prove extended pre-existing use. In Utah alone, there are more than 10,000 R.S. 2477 highway claims for primitive trails in national parks, forests, wilderness areas, and lands proposed for wilderness protection.

Unfortunately, under the Bush administration, the federal management agencies did not step in and challenge the county’s actions, leaving others to defend these treasured landscapes. The Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Earthjustice filed suit against the county for the purposes of restoring order and preserving lands that have been appropriately closed to off-road and other vehicles.

The Tenth Circuit resoundingly rejected the county’s attempt to take the law into its own hands, reasoning that the county’s actions violated the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause provides that federal law supersedes local or state laws involving federal issues where the two conflict. The court also held that the county must first prove that the rights it claimed were valid before federal managers had to accommodate them.

Of course, there are still many ways to access to our public lands, whether on foot, horseback, or motorized vehicle. In fact, 908 miles of motorized routes remain open in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument alone. This was a common-sense ruling that leaves plenty of room for counties and the government to maintain a road system that gets people out to their public lands, while protecting the values Americans enjoy at one of the country’s most extraordinary natural treasures. And anyone who has been to these amazing natural places knows they are treasures worth protecting.

photo: Illegal road sign in Kane County, Utah.