Canyonlands National Park was within its rights to put up a gate closing the dry creek-bed road to Angel Arch and forcing visitors to hike, a federal judge has decided.
The ruling is a blow against county officials favoring motorized access and potentially a precedent to shoot down dozens of claims state and county officials have laid to ill-defined routes statewide.
San Juan County, with support from the state, sued to gain control of the Salt Creek route under R.S. 2477, the federal law granting roads crossing federal lands to local governments if they can prove a history of continuous public use. U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins rejected that claim in a ruling filed Friday.
Cowboys, prospectors and Jeep explorers occasionally used the wash before the park was established in 1964. That's not enough to prove "continuous" use, Jenkins found. The standard is 10 years of common use, and Jeep drivers hadn't regularly used the area for that long before the mid-1960s.
Absent that regular use, Jenkins wrote, "a Jeep trail on a creek bed with its shifting sands and intermittent floods is a byway, not a highway."
San Juan County may appeal the ruling. "We're disappointed, and we're weighing our options," County Commissioner Bruce Adams said.
He pointed to a cabin and evidence of an old alfalfa farm up the road, indicating a historic use that should suffice for local control.
"We are very pleased with the court's decision and the careful and thorough findings contained in the opinion, said U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen, who tried the case for the government. "The decision will provide the National Park Service with the guidance it needs to move forward and manage Salt Creek Canyon in a manner which will preserve its superlative scenic, scientific, and archaeologic features for the enjoyment of the public."
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Heidi McIntosh called the ruling a "huge" win for environmentalists seeking to preserve wilderness characteristics statewide.
If a county could take control of a park road "that isn't even a road," she said, others could win routes to bust up blocks of remote land. She noted Garfield County has filed an intent to sue for dozens of routes within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, while the state has announced its plan to sue for roads elsewhere.
It would have been a troubling precedent if the judge had ceded federal control over a sporadic history of cattle drives, prospecting and "Jeeps poking around," McIntosh said. "That's the story of southern Utah. It's a relief to see that Judge Jenkins did not throw open the door to make all of those trails county and state highways."
The National Park Service erected a gate blocking 10 miles of the 12.5-mile route in 1998, forcing visitors to reach the towering rock arch by foot.