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The Bellwether Roads: The Case To Decide The Future Of Roads On Utah's Public Lands

A sandy two-track road cuts through stands of pinyon pine and juniper trees.
David Fuchs
/
KUER
A sandy two-track road cuts through Bureau of Land Management land in Kane County.

Listen to this story in this KUER news brief.

ST. GEORGE — Lawyers representing the state of Utah and Kane County made their closing arguments in the so-called “bellwether roads” case on Wednesday.The case, which has been ongoing throughout the month of February, focuses on the legal status of 15 roads on public lands in Kane County. 

But the outcome will carry significant ramifications for whether the federal government or states and counties control the tens of thousands of roads on federal lands throughout Utah and the western United States. 

“It’s always been somewhat frustrating that many of these debates happen from an 8.5-by-11 paper map,” said former Kane County Commissioner Dirk Clayson, adding that distant administrators may not realize these roads still provide essential access in rural communities.

The roads tie back to Revised Statute 2477, or “R.S. 2477” — a provision of The Mining Law of 1866, which granted rights-of-way across public lands to promote settlement and access to mineral deposits throughout the west.

The passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 repealed the statute. But all rights-of-way previously established under the 110-year-old mining law were preserved.

The United States is contesting Kane County’s claims to these roads on a variety of grounds.

In a pre-trial brief, attorneys representing the federal government argued that the county would not be able to prove that all 15 of the roads in question had been sufficiently constructed and claimed prior to 1976, among other concerns.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, is named as an intervenor in the case. The organization is critical of the state and county’s position.

SUWA‘s legal director Steve Bloch argued that this case boils down to an age-old dispute in Utah and could carry wide-sweeping implications for conservation efforts across the state. 

RS 2477 is really a tool that the state and the counties have settled on to try and push back on who’s in control of the federal land,” he said. “It’s also a tool that they’re using to try and defeat congressional wilderness designation.” 

Wilderness areas are defined, in part, by their distance from commercial, permanent and temporary roadways, according to the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Correction 6:04 p.m. 2/19/20: A previous version of this story misstated when lawyers representing the state of Utah and Kane County made their closing arguments.

David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow David on Twitter @davidmfuchs

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