Three Utah counties have filed notice with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that they intend to continue fighting for ownership of dirt roads on public lands under a 19th century mining law.
San Juan, Garfield and Kane counties are looking to overturn a February decision by U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell upholding her 2001 landmark ruling that the claims to the roads were unsubstantiated.
"I'm not surprised," said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The legal battle over the rural roads began in 1996, when SUWA and the Sierra Club sued the counties for grading roads in areas under review for wilderness protection.
The areas where the 16 routes identified in the conservationists' lawsuit were located included Hart's Point near Canyonlands National Park and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The mining law, known as RS2477, was repealed in 1976, but any road in place prior to that time can qualify as a local right of way. Campbell, though, said the routes were not valid claims because they had never been constructed, and did not have an identifiable destination.
Ralph Finlayson, an assistant Utah attorney general representing Garfield and Kane counties, said the decision makes it "virtually impossible to prove the validity of a road." That affects transportation in all of rural Utah, he said, not just the routes in question.
McIntosh said what's at issue is whether dry stream beds, abandoned jeep tracks and similar areas should constitute a highway. She said the counties' objection is not intended to safeguard public access but to prevent areas from being designated as wilderness.