Monument road dispute may lead to legal action against Kane County

Published June 30, 2005 1:28 am
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WASHINGTON - The Interior Department has asked the U.S. Attorney's Office to take legal action against Kane County for defiantly posting signs inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and tearing down signs closing roads on federal land.

The request puts the ball in the court of U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner. It has been pending with his office for several weeks, and a spokeswoman declined to say when action might be taken.

The Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management have been under pressure from environmental groups and others to take action against Kane County. In a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton last month, Sen. Richard Durbin requested information on what action the department would take against Kane County, and warned he could block the Senate confirmation of the department's No. 2 official if the response was unsatisfactory.

“The Department of Interior and the BLM have requested the U.S. Attorney's Office to take affirmative legal action on both the removal of BLM route signs and the placement of unauthorized road signs,” Rebecca Watson, assistant Interior secretary, wrote in her reply to the Illinois Democrat.

“The timing of any legal action regarding the signs is a decision made by the U.S. Attorney's Office.”

U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said nothing has been filed yet, and could not say when action might be taken. It is up to Warner's office to decide what, if any, legal action will be taken.

Kane County Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw said he is prepared to be charged with criminal trespass and destruction of property, but will argue it was not rightfully BLM property in the first place.

“We think it's more appropriately a property rights issue. We think we took this action in good faith to protect valid and existing rights,” he said. “We can't trespass on a right-of-way granted by Congress. If the federal government doesn't have authority to control the road, then the sign that was placed was an illegal sign, and under state law we have the right to remove illegal signs.”

Former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brent Ward said it is unlikely Warner will want to escalate the case that quickly and would more likely ask the federal court to issue an injunction against the county.

That would prohibit the county from trespassing on BLM land, posting new county signs or tearing down BLM signs until ownership of the roads can be decided.

“Any court action really intensifies local feelings down there,” said Ward, who handled similar trespass cases involving local governments and private parties.

Habbeshaw said the county has taken down 52 of the signs it had posted, and put up new signs where it felt its legal claims are stronger.

“If we're going to court, we prefer to go to court on our stronger roads, then worry about litigating the more minor roads at some later point,” he said.


Reporter Joe Baird contributed to this story.

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