The 5,000 or so off-road vehicle enthusiasts expected to descend on Moab over the weekend are looking for rough roads. But they could run into some unexpected bumps.
A popular trail known as Strike Ravine near the headwaters of Kane Springs Canyon is locked in a bitter dispute between San Juan County and a Moab couple who claim ownership of the road and want to keep the rumble of Jeeps off their land.
Kiley Miller and John Rzeczycki have tried to keep the road that crosses their 160-acre parcel closed to off-highway vehicles (OHVs). But San Juan County says it can't stop OHV-ers from using the trail because it is a county road.
The upcoming annual Easter Jeep Safari, now in its 38th year and expected to draw 5,000 Jeep enthusiasts and about 1,500 vehicles, has Miller frantic.
"It's total anxiety," Miller said. "I'm definitely stressed out about it."
The organizers, Red Rock 4-Wheelers, say it is clear they have a right to use the road, but they will steer clear for now.
"We will exclude or bypass that route," said Marty Avalos of Red Rock 4-Wheelers. "But that's not to say there won't be renegades."
San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy said he won't keep OHV-ers off the trail.
"We consider it a county road," he said. "We've been instructed to keep it open during that weekend."
It's an age-old conflict over who owns rural roads. But in an unusual twist, this dispute centers on whether private landowners own the road across their land or whether it is a pre-existing right-of-way owned by the county.
No actual legal deeds to the road exist to clear up the issue.
"We have so many roads," noted San Juan County attorney Craig Halls. "The majority of our roads don't have deeded rights of way."
There's a statutory process for closing a road, he added. It requires a public hearing before the San Juan County Commission, which determines whether closing it is in the best public interest.
"We've required farmers and ranchers, who over the years, want to close their roads, and a few have been closed," Halls added. "People who purchase property may own the property, but the roads are subject to an easement, and they can't just close the road."
Miller's attorney, Steve Russell, isn't so sure. "This is a little bit different," he said.
It involves state lands, not federal lands, so counties can't claim road ownership under an old mining law "RS 2477" which guaranteed states and counties the use of highways across federal land, Miller added.
At issue here is a state law that allows the counties rights of way across state lands provided they existed before Jan. 1, 1992.
"It would be my position that in order to prove it's a public road would be whether it had continuous public use. The only people who use the road is the Red Rock 4-Wheelers," Russell said. "That does not constitute a continuous public use. . . . The Red Rock 4-Wheelers are not free to use it. They have permission on a limited basis (during the Jeep Safari)."
An avid rock climber, Miller moved from California to Moab six years ago to enjoy the rugged cliffs. She and Rzeczycki fell in love with the area but couldn't afford the inflated land prices of Moab. They were excited to find a 160-acre parcel just 13 miles south of Moab for sale. It was part of an auction by the state School and Institutional Trust Land Administration (SITLA). They won the bid at a bargain price of $42,000.
"We bought this big piece of rugged land with the intention of building a house on it," she said.
Located on the property are two trails used by off-road enthusiasts, Lower Helldorado and Strike Ravine. The Lower Helldorado which many people agree is merely a wash is not part of the Easter Jeep Safari, organizers say. But the Strike Ravine has been part of the blow-out weekend since 1992.
In the transaction, SITLA didn't indicate there were county-claimed roads on the property purchased by Miller and Rzeczycki because there were no legal recordings of the claims, nor did San Juan County make its intentions known.
"It's a shame," conceded Rick Wilcox, a resource specialist with SITLA. "We've learned a lesson from this case that we make it part of the advertisement from now on."
Miller and Rzeczycki now find themselves between a rock and hard spot in the road."It's pretty huge doing this. There's a lot of people in this community who are going to hate me," Miller said. "It just seems like it's so inappropriate to have this total blatant use of OHVs (when) we're just trying to protect the area. This is a special place that we don't want to see it destroyed."