Controversial Road Rule Agreement Opens Door to Highway Robbery on Western Public Lands

On April 9, 2003, after more than two years of secret, closed-door negotiations between the Department of the Interior and State of Utah, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt signed and released a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), establishing a process by which RS 2477 claims can be granted across public lands.  The MOU will allow states, counties, mining and oil and gas companies, and other private interests to use this arcane loophole to punch “constructed highways” throughout America’s redrock wilderness with no regard for public comment, environmental review, or current environmental law.

The agreement:

  • provides for no public involvement until after BLM has already made a decision to turn routes over to states;
  • will permit Utah to turn jeep tracks into paved highways after simply notifying the BLM and getting the agency’s approval, again without public involvement;
  • does not require any look at the environmental impacts of the wholesale giveaway of routes;
  • will use the Bush administration’s new, controversial, and illegal “disclaimer of interest” regulation to ease the public land giveaway;
  • provides no real protection for national parks, wildlife refuges, or wilderness areas, since the state of Utah, counties, and all-terrain vehicle groups are free to pursue these claims in federal court;
  • will loosen standards that could permit states to allege that cow paths and foot trails are “constructed highways” and thus subject to giveaway; and
  • invites other states and counties to apply for similar agreements.

Reaction to the MOU:

April 21, 2003: Senator Jeff Bingaman (NM) sends letter to Secretary Norton asking her not to process any RS 2477 claims until Congress can weigh in on the issue and assess the legality of Norton’s RS 2477 regulation.

April 15, 2003: Senator Jeff Bingaman (NM) sends letter to the General Accounting Office asking for legal assessment in determining the validity of Secretary Norton’s RS 2477 regulation.

April 16, 2003: Representative Mark Udall (CO), joined by 87 fellow members of Congress sends bipartisan letter to Secretary Norton asking her not to grant any new right-of-way claims under RS 2477 and to establish a process by which the validity of such right-of-way claims can be assessed.

April 20, 2003: Salt Lake Tribune Editorial “Assaulting Wilderness” (p. AA) is critical of Department of Interior’s two-pronged assault of Utah wildlands