Great News! Tenth Circuit Court Issues Key Decision Preserving Canyonlands National Park!

Angel Arch in Salt Creek Canyon.  Copyright Tom Till.
Angel Arch in Salt Creek Canyon. Copyright Tom Till.

Late in the day on Friday, April 25th the United States Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a long-awaited decision rejecting arguments by San Juan County and the State of Utah that Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park is a state highway.  The state and county relied on an 1866 law commonly known as “RS 2477” to argue that occasional travel in Salt Creek Canyon by jeeps had created a public highway.  The Circuit Court rejected these claims and affirmed the district court’s findings that this was not the case.

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.  The threat that motorized vehicles posed to these irreplaceable resources is well documented and resulted in the National Park Service’s decision to close the canyon to such use.

All-American Man pictograph  in Salt Creek Canyon
“All-American Man” pictograph in Salt Creek Canyon. Copyright Tom Till.

SUWA has long argued that the State of Utah was wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, largely paid to a private law firm, in a decade-longlawsuit claiming that a stream is actually a “highway”through the heart of Canyonlands National Park. The Circuit Court’s decision should be a wake-up call for the State to drop its quixotic quest claiming cowpaths, two-tracks and streambottoms as highways.

The decision will have important implications beyond Salt Creek.  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.  SUWA and several of our conservation partners have successfully intervened in these cases and are working to defeat the State’s claims that threaten proposed wilderness areas, national parks, national monuments and national recreation areas, and other sensitive and important landscapes.

The decision also highlights SUWA’s enduing nature.  In 1995, SUWA attorneys (including now-SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene) filed a lawsuit challenging a decision by the National Park Service to permit jeep use in Salt Creek Canyon despite overwhelming evidence that such use was destroying cultural sites and the fragile stream.  In the nearly 20 years that followed the filing of that lawsuit SUWA’s legal team and dogged members never gave up the fight to protect this special place.  Now we can reap the fruits of that labor: the knowledge that Salt Creek Canyon will be preserved for current and future generations as a refuge of quiet beauty.

As our former colleague and now partner at Earthjustice Heidi McIntosh said, SUWA is about endless pressure applied endlessly.  The Salt Creek decision is a testament to that principle.