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Old-timer Statements Important In Wildlands Cases

Judy Fahys/KUER
Joe Bushyhead, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, provided a status report on R.S. 24 77 litigation at the S.J. Quinney College of Law on Thursday.

The fight over wilderness in Utah has dragged on for so long that lawyers are scrambling to gather important testimony before key witnesses pass away.

The legal importance of these depositions came up Thursday at the University of Utah’s S. J. Quinney College of Law, where Joe Bushyhead, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, gave an update on the legal wrangling over what are called R.S. 2477 roads.

Some state and county leaders contend these “roads” disqualify millions of acres of federal land from wilderness status. But conservation advocates say the 25,000-plus miles of “trails” and “washes” don’t warrant opening up the wildlands to mining and other development.

State and federal courts will ultimately decide the question – based in part on statements from over 300 old-timers in rural Utah.

“I think the big issue, really, here is that we’re collecting testimony that is decades old,” said Bushyhead. “We’re collecting memories from 40, 50, 60 years ago. This is a big effort.”

The statements focus on proving -- or disproving -- that a road has been in continual use for a decade or more prior to 1976. They’re part of the broader quarrel between Sagebrush Rebels and public lands activists that’s expected to continue for decades more.

A pair of men in cowboy hats stepped up to talk with the SUWA lawyer after his presentation. One was Jerry Hurst, a former Tooele county commissioner.

“I think it’s sad that it’s come to this -- absolutely,” Hurst said. “I don’t like to see litigation. I mean that costs a lot of money and a lot of time, you know, on things that common sense could prevail on.”

Hurst and his stepfather, Stew Paulick, said they’d given affidavits in past roads cases, but those statements are worthless in the current cases.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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