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Road rules relaxed

Bob Berwyn

In a move that drew immediate praise from motorized recreation advocates and sharp criticism from conservationists, the Bush administration has made it easier for local governments to claim rights-of-way to old trails, abandoned wagon roads and cattle paths. Many such routes crisscross public lands throughout the West, including national parks, national forests and even wilderness areas.At issue is an 1866 law – RS 2477 – that was adopted to help miners gain access to mineral deposits during the settlement of the West. The statute enables local governments to make right-of-way claims along routes that were established before the lands were set aside as federal territory.Under the new rule, the public would have no chance to comment on whether the federal government should relinquish a right-of-way. The only recourse would be through court. The Department of Interior would also like to ease the standards for which routes qualify under the statute.&quotPotentially, we could have places like Moffat County claiming a right-of-way on old goat trails,&quot says Matt Sura of the Western Colorado Congress. In fact, the Moffat County commissioners revealed their plans the day the rule was finalized by the Department of Interior. A map shows hundreds of miles of new roads snaking through the far northwestern corner of the state, including in Dinosaur National Monument and several Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas.National environmental groups have signaled their alarm, noting that local and state governments in Utah, Alaska and other states are preparing to file extensive claims under the new rule. In Utah, places like Zion National Park, Canyonlands and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are threatened.&quotThey’re claiming the Pariah River bed as a right-of-way,&quot says an indignant Richard Compton, a lands expert with the White River Conservation Project. &quotThis could overturn the Wilderness Act,&quot he adds, explaining that the new rule could even enable local governments to build roads across wilderness areas.&quotIt seems like it’s open season on public lands. This possibly the most radical thing the Bush administration has done with public lands,&quot Compton says. &quotTheoretically, pretty much any of the old mining roads anybody could find a trace of could be claimed.&quotIn Alaska, the state government is claiming rights-of-way on land-section lines and in California, the San Bernadino County commissioners are preparing to make claims for more that 2,500 miles of roads in the Mojave National Preserve.Locally, federal land managers were not yet able to say what the impacts might be, but clearly, there are old trails on the White River National Forest that could qualify for a right-of-way claim under RS 2477.&quotIf you look at how and when this area was settled, you have to think that they’re out there,&quot says Barry Sheakley, a lands specialist with the White River National Forest headquarters in Glenwood Springs. &quotThey are out there, but we have no idea how many,&quot he adds, explaining that each claim would require site-specific study to determine whether it qualifies under the statute. &quotSomebody has to start the ball rolling. We can’t make a determination until then.&quotGiven mining history of Eagle and Summit counties, there are scores of old roads and trails lacing the local forest and mountains. But Sheakley says many if not most of those are probably already open to the public. Still, there are others that could be subject to a claim under the new rule, he acknowledges. &quotThere may be some sleepers out there.&quot&quotI dont think its going to make a big difference,&quot says Republican Summit County Commissioner Tom Long. &quotThe roads that we have are there and well-documented.&quotIn Eagle County, the area around Fulford and Brush Creek saw historic mining activity, so Sheakley says he wouldn’t be surprised if there were old paths in those areas that could conceivably be developed under an RS 2477 right-of-way claim.Republican Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone says he hasn’t studied the rule in detail, but says that, in general, he supports the idea of more local control and input into federal land-management decisions.Conservationists are appalled at the new rule and characterize it as part of the Republican onslaught against public lands. But motorized recreation enthusiasts stand to gain the most from the rule, says Clark Collins, director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an advocacy group for snowmobilers, dirt-bike and all-terrain-vehicle riders and 4X4 enthusiasts based in Pocatello, Idaho.&quotWe consider it a pretty substantial gain,” Collins said in an interview with the Seattle Times. &quotThat historic use in our view should provide for continued recreational use of those routes. The government should not be allowed to close them.&quotJerry Abboud, director of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, says he didn’t know enough about the rule yet to make detailed comments. But based on what he had seen, Abboud says, &quotI don’t think it’s a wholesale attempt to open up federal lands.&quotWhile some officials downplayed potential impacts, environmentalists say Coloradans could be feeling the effects of the rule change very soon in places like monuments and even wilderness areas.Ted Zukoski, an environmental attorney who recently moved from the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies to Earthjustice to work specifically on RS 2477 issues, says the rule is part of a broader attempt to undo legislation with administrative fiats.&quotThey are attempting to use this rule as a sword to attack land protections,&quot Zukoski says, specifically identifying the Moffat County claims. &quotThey want to make it impossible to manage these lands as wilderness.&quotPart of the intent in Moffat County is to ease the way for development of potential oil and gas deposits in remote areas that conservationists would like to see designated as wilderness, Zukoski says. The biggest fear is that the rule will open up vast areas to motorized use, Zukoski and other environmental advocates say.Top DOI officials have said the rule change will allow federal land managers to process RS 2477 claims with less paperwork, saving taxpayer dollars on court costs. According to Stephen Griles, a former mining lobbyist who serves as the No. 2 official in the Interior Department, the rule change was spurred in part by the advocacy of the Western Governors Association.


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