Stay informed about Utah wilderness
Supporters and wilderness advocates like you play a critical role in the protection of Utah’s spectacular wild places.
Stay informed about Utah wilderness
Supporters and wilderness advocates like you play a critical role in the protection of Utah’s spectacular wild places.
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*Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. All contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.
Recently, newspaper stories and rumors have swirled around both a potential national monument in San Juan County, Utah, and Rep. Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative. Let me try and cut through the clutter to give you an idea where things currently stand.
First, the monument. A historic coalition of Native-American Tribes and Pueblos have come together to call for a Bears Ears National Monument or National Conservation Area in Utah. This proposal, which we fully support, encompasses 1.9 million acres of dense cultural artifacts, stunning redrock canyons and plateaus, and high-elevation forests. The tribal coalition recently met at Bears Ears with officials from the departments of Interior and Agriculture to discuss their proposal.
Second, the Public Lands Initiative. As you are likely aware, more than two years ago Rep. Rob Bishop announced his Public Lands Initiative as an effort to resolve public lands issues in Eastern Utah. We were impressed by Rep. Bishop’s willingness to undertake this difficult task and, in turn, we brought good faith and substantial resources to the table. We jumped into time-consuming discussions and dialogue with the Utah congressional delegation and the local counties.
However, the dialogue and effort has not been uniform. San Juan County, for example, has opted for a process that excludes participation from anyone outside the county. Despite the fact that the Public Lands Initiative has been around for more than two years, only this month did the county commissioners finally put forward their proposal. As you might guess, for a county that has chosen to avoid “external” dialogue, the proposal is terrible.
San Juan County leaves out deserving landscapes for protection (Hatch Point and White Canyon, above, to name a few of many), it asks for more land dedicated to energy development than it does for conservation, and it asks that the President’s authority to set aside national monuments be removed. In an act of pure chutzpah, it demands that Recapture Canyon be turned over to the county. Remember, current commissioner Phil Lyman was convicted of trespass and conspiracy for leading an illegal off-road vehicle ride down Recapture Canyon (which is closed to vehicle use in that part of the canyon).
San Juan County ignored the requests of the tribal coalition that it propose meaningful protection for the Bears Ears proposal. Ironically, it even ignored the majority of its own county respondents who asked for protections in this area (opens in PDF). And no surprise, it ignored our proposal (see comparison below).
This is where the national monument and PLI paths collide. In a move that would fail to surprise even the casual Utah political observer, the Utah governor and congressional delegation have recently opposed the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument. This opposition, though, is based on the potential for the Public Lands Initiative to resolve issues in San Juan County. Utah Governor Gary Herbert said that the Public Lands Initiative provides for “negotiation, compromise, and debate.” Unfortunately, those three factors have been completely absent from the discussion in San Juan County.
It is worth reiterating that San Juan County completely excluded participation from anyone outside its boundaries. Allowing only 0.005 percent of the nation’s population to determine the future of our public lands (and, in reality, ignoring most of its citizens’ input at the same time) will not lead to a good outcome.
We remain willing to engage in “negotiation, compromise, and debate.” It is the only way in which public lands issues will be fully resolved in San Juan County. We are anxiously awaiting details from Utah’s congressional delegation and governor as to how that will happen in San Juan County. Absent that, it is our fear that the Public Lands Initiative may become little more than an excuse to forestall a new national monument in Utah.
Earlier this month, three judges asked the Utah Supreme Court to decide a question of law being pressed by SUWA in the state’s RS 2477 cases.
Dismisses Utah claims to 6 routes and concludes width of 3 other routes must be revisited
Salt Lake City, Utah (December 3, 2014) – Yesterday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a key decision in the State of Utah’s ongoing roads (RS 2477) litigation.
The appeals court cut in half a 2013 decision by a district court judge to grant Utah and Kane County 12 so-called RS 2477 rights-of-way. The appeals court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction over 6 of the 12 routes because they were open for motorized travel pursuant to federal land use plans. The court also reversed the district court’s “scope” (width) determinations regarding 3 other routes located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and remanded for further proceedings.
“This decision is a significant set-back for the State of Utah’s effort to wrest control of more than 14,000 claimed ‘highways’ across federally managed lands in the state,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “After more than 10 years of litigation and millions of taxpayer dollars, Utah has little to show for its efforts. Of the 17 claimed RS 2477 rights-of-way litigated in two separate cases all the way to the Tenth Circuit, the State has established title to only 6 routes, leaving 13,983 routes to go.”
The appeals court also rejected an argument advanced by conservation groups that the State’s RS 2477 claim in the Paria-Hackberry wilderness study area was filed too late and after the relevant 12-year statute of limitations had run.
After being denied intervention in these proceedings, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society participated as amicus curiae before both the district court and court of appeals. The Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, and National Parks Conservation Association also participated as amicus curiae in separate filings before the appeals court.
A copy of the decision is available here.
Originally filed in 2008, Kane County and the State of Utah expended millions of dollars to pursue 16 claimed rights-of-way in this lawsuit. Several of the claims are located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and one is within a BLM wilderness study area.
This case is one of 25 filed by the State of Utah and its counties that claim title to approximately 14,000 dirt trails and roads across the state. Many of these claims are little more than stream bottoms and old mining tracks in the desert that serve no practical purpose whatsoever. The State is relying on a provision in the Mining Act of 1866 to try and establish its claimed rights-of-way.
Rejects Once and For All State of Utah and County Claim that Streambed in Salt Creek Canyon Is State “Highway”
Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3981 (office)
Heidi McIntosh, Earthjustice, 303.996.9621 (office)
(September 8, 2014) Salt Lake City, UT: This morning the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit denied petitions filed by San Juan County and the State of Utah which had sought rehearing or rehearing en banc of the Court’s April 2014 decision that Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park is not a state highway.
In a brief written order, the court explained that no active member of the court asked that the whole court be “polled” to vote on whether to rehear the case. In other words, the county and state’s arguments were rejected out of hand.
“This order is a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Canyonlands National Park. And it should be the end of the line for the State of Utah and San Juan County’s claim that the stream bottom of Salt Creek Canyon is a state highway,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
“With the Tenth Circuit’s ruling, Salt Creek will remain a place of quiet beauty, with healthy wildlife habitat and clean water, unpolluted by the hundreds of jeeps that used to churn through the stream every year,” said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney at Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office who represented conservation groups that participated in the case.
This order and the circuit court’s April decision will have important implications beyond the facts of this case. The State of Utah and its counties are pursuing more than 20 similar cases asserting that approximately 36,000 miles of dirt trails and cowpaths are state highways.
The next case to come before the circuit court is an appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups’ 2013 ruling in favor of Kane County and the State of Utah that recognized highway rights of way to twelve routes in Kane County. Several of those routes are primitive jeep routes and one is inside a wilderness study area. Some of the issues in the Salt Creek decision, especially the circuit court’s ruling that use of a route by ranchers does not meet the law’s requirement that the route be used by the broader public, are also at issue in the appeal of Judge Waddoups’ ruling.
Salt Creek Canyon is one of the crown jewels of Canyonlands National Park. It contains the only perennial stream in the Park (besides the Green and Colorado rivers) and is home to the Salt Creek National Register Archaeological District, the area with the highest recorded density of archaeological sites in the park. Jeep use had polluted the water with engine fluids and degraded wildlife habitat for bears, fish and a host of other species. All these impacts were well documented and resulted in the National Park Service’s decision to close the canyon to such use in 2004.
The State of Utah and San Juan County relied on an 1866 law to argue that occasional jeep use and cattle trailing in Salt Creek Canyon created a public highway. The Circuit Court’s April 2014 unanimous decision rejected these claims and affirmed the district court’s findings that this was not so.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, and The Wilderness Society were amici (friends of the court) in the case before the Tenth Circuit. They were represented by attorneys from Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Earthjustice, and the law firm of Jenner & Block.
Contend that state law bars Attorney General from bringing Tooele County RS 2477 lawsuit
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.859.1552 (cell) or 801.428.3981 (office)
Brent V. Manning & Jess M. Krannich, Manning Curtis Bradshaw & Bednar LLC, 801.363.5678
(July 29, 2014) Salt Lake City, UT: Today a Tooele County resident and taxpayer, along with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, filed a lawsuit in Third District Court (state court) alleging that the State Attorney General acted illegally when he brought a federal lawsuit claiming more than 2,400 miles of alleged RS 2477 “roads” in Tooele County. The lawsuit asks the court to bar the State from pursuing or funding its federal lawsuit seeking title over RS 2477 “roads” in Tooele County and to declare that the Attorney General acted illegally when he brought the case in the first place.
“The State’s lawsuit threatens some of Tooele County’s wildest places, including the Cedar Mountain Wilderness and North Stansbury and Indian Peaks proposed wilderness areas,” said Michael Abdo, a Tooele County resident. “These are places I go with friends, family, and Boy Scouts to appreciate their natural beauty and quiet. The State’s attempt to establish ‘roads’ in these areas is misguided, and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
In the past decade the State legislature has spent millions of dollars in an ill-advised effort to claim that alleged “roads,” including faded two-tracks and stream bottoms, are actually State highways that can be improved and paved to a minimum width of 66 feet. Some are virtually impossible to locate. Often the routes lead to no landmark or destination, and are not part of any reasonably described transportation network. The legislature funds its RS 2477 litigation campaign from millions allocated to the Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, the Constitutional Defense Council, and the Attorney General’s Office.
“The State’s RS 2477 litigation is part of its larger effort to take control of public lands and block congressional wilderness designation,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “If successful, this lawsuit will bring an end to the state’s expensive and senseless campaign.”
State law bars the State from bringing a lawsuit claiming title to real property unless its right or title accrued within seven years of the filing of the case. Here, the State’s alleged title to RS 2477 rights-of-way accrued no later than 1976, when Congress repealed that statute. Thus, the State’s power to bring a lawsuit seeking title over RS 2477 “roads” in Tooele County lapsed more than 25 years before the State filed its case.
The State’s and Toole County’s lawsuit is brought directly contrary to Utah law and the constitutional requirement that the State Attorney General act in accordance with Utah law. According to the plain language of the applicable Utah statute: “The state may not bring an action against any person for or with respect to any real property, its issues or profits, based upon the state’s right or title to the real property, unless: (1) the right or title to the property accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding is commenced […]”Utah Code Ann. § 78B-2-201 (emphasis added). Nonetheless, the State is disregarding its own laws to pursue an anti-wilderness agenda.
It is popular in this state to criticize the courts if they do not follow the plain language of the law as enacted by the Utah legislature. Here, the language chosen by the legislature is clear: “the state may not bring an action … unless the right … to the property accrued within seven years…” Notwithstanding this clear prohibition, the Attorney General and Toole County are spending millions of dollars in direct violation of Utah law to pursue what Public Land Policy Coordination Office Director Kathleen Clarke recently described as “the largest litigation ever taken on by the State of Utah.” With this lawsuit, Mr. Abdo and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance seek to stop the wasteful and illegal expenditure of taxpayer money, the apparent object of which is to disqualify lands for Wilderness designation.
The State’s RS 2477 lawsuit in Tooele County is one of more than twenty-five (25) lawsuits filed by the State of Utah and its counties claiming more than 14,000 rights of way totaling nearly 35,000 miles of dirt trails and routes on public lands. Taken together, this massive litigation threatens several national parks and monuments as well as iconic Utah wilderness landscapes.
|Click to view map of RS 2477 claims