A federal appeals court has rejected a claim that a stretch of creek bed in Canyonlands National Park is a public highway and that San Juan County and Utah can prevent the federal government from closing it to vehicles.
The decision, issued late Friday by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholds the closure to motorized traffic of Salt Creek Road, an unimproved road that intertwines with the creek bed in the Salt Creek Canyon.
Environmental organizations applauded the decision. Stephen Bloch, of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the groups that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said the ruling will protect a key part of the national park.
Salt Creek Road, which has been closed to vehicles since 1998, is the primary way for people to reach several scenic sites within the park, including Angel Arch. Without being able to drive, the only way to make the nine-mile trek to the arch is by foot or by pack animal.
After the National Park Service announced in 2004 that it planned to keep the road closed, San Juan County — later joined by the state of Utah — filed suit arguing that under Revised Statue (R.S.) 2477, the road was a public highway.
R.S. 2477, enacted by Congress in 1866, granted rights-of-way to construct highways over public lands. The law has been repealed but existing roads were grandfathered in . Under Utah law, a highway is created when a road is used “continuously and uninterruptedly “ as a public thoroughfare for 10 years.
U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins in Salt Lake City ruled at the conclusion of a trial that started in 2009 that although the county and state had shown a variety of historical uses of the road, there was not enough evidence to prove continuous public use for a decade. That decision led to the appeal to 10th Circuit, which upheld Jenkins’ ruling.