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.