Will a 19th-century law prevent the BLM from closing Utah roads?

Utah’s representatives in both the Utah and United States capitols hope so.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, joins other representatives in holding signs with reasons why they ran for office during the start of the the 2024 legislative session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Utah Rep. Phil Lyman claims that there will be “better roads ahead” if he is elected governor.

He means that literally.

In a recent post to his gubernatorial campaign account on X, formerly known as Twitter, the Republican representing Blanding wrote that he will propose legislation in the upcoming session “that will strengthen R.S. 2477 protections for our state and county roads.”

Lyman referred to part of an 1866 law that allowed counties to build roads on public lands for public use. The State of Utah recently used R.S. 2477 as an argument against the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to close roads near Moab to motorized vehicles.

While Lyman says preventing road closures in Utah as an important battle, the gubernatorial candidate has his sights set on a larger war.

“I oppose the radical environmentalist agenda to lock up our lands and shut down our historic roads, and we need to be doing everything we can as a state to oppose oppressive federal overreach,” Lyman’s post read.

The lawmaker punctuated that point on Tuesday, the first day of the state legislative session, holding a sign that read “[guarding] people’s rights against federal encroachment” as his motivation to run for governor.

How is Utah using R.S. 2477 to challenge road closures?

In September, the Bureau of Land Management announced its plan to close 317 miles of routes to motorized vehicles in the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area. These roads were previously open to off-highway and passenger vehicles, but the BLM said the closures were necessary to promote riparian vegetation, conserve wildlife habitats and protect cultural sites.

The State of Utah challenged the BLM’s plan in late October, claiming that it has the right to use roads on public lands that were established under R.S. 2477. According to the state, the BLM’s travel management plan closed 114 miles of R.S. 2477 roads.

But Utah has not established its right to these roads in federal court. The State of Utah and Grand County sued the Department of the Interior and the BLM in 2012 to settle the title to these roads under R.S. 2477, but that case has not been resolved.

“[Utah has] claimed rights of way that need to be adjudicated in order to be recognized as valid, existing rights,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the conservation nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). “The state claiming that it has rights of way doesn’t put them in a materially different position until those claims are adjudicated in federal court.”

Utah says that the BLM “ignored” its requests to keep R.S. 2477 roads open when finalizing the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Plan. The state also said that R.S. 2477 roads closed by the BLM are necessary to access state trust lands that generate revenue for public schools and a state mental hospital.

In the travel management plan, the BLM stated that “at such time as a decision is made on R.S. 2477 assertions, outside of any planning process, the BLM will adjust its travel routes accordingly.”

Why do these roads matter to Utah leaders?

The fight using R.S. 2477 to challenge road closures in the rugged red rock of southeastern Utah has even reached the halls of Congress.

Rep. John Curtis, who is running to replace Sen. Mitt Romney, and Sen. Mike Lee have introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate titled the Historic Roadways Protection Act in response to the Moab road closures.

If passed, the act would prevent any more federal travel management plans from being issued while the state continues to litigate R.S. 2477 claims. Curtis’ office said that the legislation would “sidestep federal overreach on public roads.”

“Motorized access to Utah’s outdoors is critical for local economies and recreation opportunities,” said Curtis in November. “My legislation simply requires that we know all valid historic routes, which is critical to understand what areas can be accessed, before BLM makes further travel management planning decisions.”

There are over 12,500 R.S. 2477 right-of-way claims that have yet to be adjudicated in the state. Bloch said that under their proposed legislation, there would be no more new travel management plans for decades.

“Utah has filed so many [R.S. 2477] claims it’s going to take that long to decide them all,” he wrote to The Tribune.

The Historic Roadways Protection Act also states that these roads have “historic value.”

“These roads aren’t just pathways; they’re a testament to Utah’s rich history and the pioneers who shaped our state,” said Lee in a statement. “It’s crucial that we ensure their protection for future generations.”

Bloch said that most of the roads in question were created in the mid-20th century. “These roads weren’t used by pioneers,” he said. “This is an attempt to protect motorized recreation in 2024.”

The Historic Roadways Protection Act has been introduced in both houses of Congress and referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the House Committee on Natural Resources. Lee and Curtis are members of each respective committee.