State, feds reach first accord in Utah's road wars
Three routes penetrating the Deep Creek Mountains are the subject of a proposed court settlement that is hoped to serve as a "template" for resolving thousands of other quiet-title claims Utah and its counties are waging against the federal government.
In the consent decree filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, Juab County agreed to abandon some of its rights-of-way claims and enact ordinances limiting motorized use in its share of the 69,000-acre wilderness study area (WSA) blanketing the scenic West Desert range.
"This is a good result all the way around. In the Deep Creeks, you have a remarkable island of towering mountains and pine forests in the middle of an arid desert," said Earthjustice lawyer Heidi McIntosh, who represents Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and two other environmental groups that intervened in the case.
Said Juab County Commission Chairman Chad Winn: "These historic roads were once used to reach some beautiful camping areas and historic sites in our county."
Less than 25 miles of routes were at stake, but the settlement marks the first resolution in numerous lawsuits the state has brought invoking the repealed Civil War-era statute known as R.S. 2477. This law allows the state to gain title to roads crossing public lands if it can prove 10 years of continuous public use prior to the law's repeal in 1976.
While Gov. Gary Herbert applauded the agreement as a model for resolving pending road claims, environmentalists affirmed their opposition to the state's broad plan to claim title to 36,000 miles of routes around the state.
"It's one settlement. We'll see if it can work in other cases, but until then we are aggressively fighting the state's efforts to claim cow paths and stream bottoms in national parks, national monuments and other wilderness-caliber lands in Utah," said SUWA's legal director Steve Bloch.
If signed by Judge Tena Campbell, the decree will grant the state title to portions of routes accessing Trout Creek, Granite and Tom's canyons on the Deep Creeks' east slope. The latter two extend a few miles into the WSA where historical evidence favored the county's claim. Years ago, for example, locals gathered at a clearing known as Camp Ethel in Granite Canyon, so the state gets the road up to this spot.
"A lot of the first homes built in Callao involved wood coming out of Tom's Canyon. All three canyons had mining claims dating to 1900," said Assistant Attorney General Harry Souvall, the state's chief lawyer on R.S. 2477 litigation.
After taking two dozen depositions, however, lawyers developed little evidence of historical road access above these destinations, McIntosh said. Accordingly, Trout Creek will remain gated where it enters the WSA, while the state wins title to Tom's Canyon Road only to the site of the old logging operations. However, this route will remain open to the crest of the Deep Creeks, just north of 12,087-foot Ibapah Peak.
BLM will monitor this area for off-road impacts and will be free to close the upper part of the road if ORVs go off trail. While the county will be able to maintain the road segments it won, it has agreed to not pave or widen them.
Motorized use will be allowed only from June to November.