As expected, the State of Utah, together with some (but not all) Utah counties, have begun to file their massive lawsuits claiming that they own 12,000 roads across federal lands now managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and National Park Service.
As an attack on our public lands, including some of the most scenic landscapes in the nation, this litigation is unprecedented. If successful, the majority of these 12,000 routes will cut through the heart of Utah’s wide open, spectacularly wild places, defacing them with scars and introducing the noise and dust of unmanageable off-road vehicles and development. Federal land managers and park rangers will face enormous hurdles in their efforts to limit the damage. Wilderness is at risk.
Salt Creek, in Canyonlands National Park, is a case in point. There, after pressure from SUWA convinced the Park Service to close the creek to vehicle use due to the water pollution, soil erosion and habitat damage it caused, San Juan County and the state sued the Park Service, claiming that the creek bed was an R.S. 2477 “road,” and that it could not be closed no matter how much vehicle damage the creek suffered. After over $ 1 million in litigation costs, the state and county lost. Yet they have doubled down and appealed the decision.
Now multiply the $1 million in costs to litigation one case by 12,000. That’s a lot of zeros. Wasted.
Wasted, because about 10,000 of the state’s claims aren’t even real roads. They have not been graded or constructed, and UDOT doesn’t even track them. They have no engineering plans, environmental studies, or traffic analysis. Many are abandoned seismic lines, trails pioneered by anonymous prospectors or other explorers, and old livestock trails. Many fade away into the desert with no apparent destination. They may only see a handful of drivers a year, sometimes none. They are simply not roads in the way we normally think of them. But if established, they would threaten wildlife habitat and introduce engine noise and scars where natural quiet and beauty once reigned, irreparably damaging national parks and wilderness areas.
And there’s little controversy about the remaining 2,000, which no one has sought to close.
So why spend millions of dollars to litigate these roads to nowhere? It’s all about the irresistible urge of some Utah politicians, including Governor Herbert, to attack federal ownership of our public lands. Unfortunately, their zeal to do that costs us all.