It sounds innocuous enough. Revised Statute 2477, enacted as part of the 1866 Mining Law, simply provides that “[t]he right of way for the construction of highways across public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted.” Now, the State of Utah and its counties are trying to wield this simple phrase as a sword to invalidate millions of acres of proposed wilderness.

Statewide RS 2477 claims.

Congress repealed R.S. 2477 when it passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976, but any claims deemed valid in 1976 may remain valid. Thirty-six years after R.S. 2477’s repeal, in 2012, the State of Utah filed more than 25 lawsuits in federal district court in an attempt to gain rights to approximately 14,500 of these so-called “highways.” That translates into roughly 36,000 miles of dirt trails crisscrossing the state.

The claims cross a myriad of federal lands, including BLM, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-managed lands, as well as private and state lands. The lawsuits assert claims within some of the state’s wildest places including more than 2,000 miles of routes within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 458 miles within national parks, and more than 3,600 miles within proposed wilderness areas.

And let’s be clear: the overwhelming majority of these routes are not “roads” that lead to schools, stores, or other important destinations. Rather, they are stream bottoms, cowpaths and two-tracks in the desert that may have been briefly used decades ago by ranchers or prospectors and only occasionally visited since.

San Juan County "highway" claim in the Bridger Jack Mesa proposed wilderness.

San Juan County “highway” claim in the Bridger Jack Mesa proposed wilderness south of Moab.

If the courts accept Utah’s argument that these R.S. 2477 claims are actually “highways” under this antiquated law, it would nullify or diminish longstanding protection for national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas and other scenic landscapes. And it would slam the door on future protection of these remarkable public lands.

What’s the real motive behind this massive litigation? It is part of Gov. Herbert’s ongoing effort to seize federal land from the American public — in essence, to block the protection of these magnificent public lands and turn them over to extractive industries, off-road vehicles and developers.

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