Trial over Canyonlands road begins

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 15 2009 1:11 a.m. MDT

Salt Creek Road in San Juan County is at the center of the dispute between local government and the feds.

Provided by San Juan County

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Dave Bronson's high-school years were marked by group Jeep trips to Angel Arch and swims in Salt Creek. He went alone, with family and with friends. There was even a student council outing to the popular site. He said that, growing up, it was the place to be.

"It was a social thing," Bronson said. "Everyone in town had a Jeep, and that was one of the great things to do. Salt Creek was just more of a fun area. You had the water, and the main thing was to see Angel Arch."

Bronson said he returnedto the site year after year, until the National Park Service gated Salt Creek Road, barring public access, in 1998.

That closure and the rights to the road are at the heart of a five-year dispute between locals and the federal government that will now be decided by a judge.

Bronson, a San Juan County surveyor, was in court Monday talking about his memories of the area, as well as his experiences surveying the site.

Both sides presented their cases Monday as the court fight over this remote road in San Juan County began. What is slated to be a two-week federal trial is pitting the rights of the public against the feasibility of a creek road and the limitations of human memory.

With attorneys for Utah and San Juan County on one side and attorneys for the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service on the other, the trial before U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins is focused on Salt Creek Road.

The road spans about 12 miles, running in and around Salt Creek leading to Angel Arch in Canyonlands National Park. Its status as a road meant for public use is rooted in R.S. 2477, a statute dating back to 1866, which allowed the public use of public lands for the purpose of developing the West, said Shawn Welch, attorney for San Juan County.

The law, repealed in 1976 with protection for existing roads, has led to protracted disputes about which routes in the West qualify for local control. San Juan County sued the National Park Service five years ago for closing much of the Salt Creek Road to vehicles about 10 years ago. The state later joined the suit.

Welch outlined the road's use from around 1896 through 1964, when the road became part of Canyonlands National Park, and asked the judge to consider what Congress intended back in 1866 when it created the statute. He said it was Congress itself that later called the Angel Arch "spectacular" and said the roadway is essential to providing access to the arch.

"The Angel Arch is for the use, benefit and enjoyment of the public," Welch said. Without the road, there is "impaired public right of access to Angel Arch. The 10-mile hike in and out is too long for most people."

Harry Souvall from the Utah Attorney General's Office presented a number of images and dates recounting the road's use as a cattlemen's trail, a Jeep trail and an avenue to a uranium mine — all of which, he said, strengthens the argument to allow continued public access to the roadway.

"Each of these areas of evidence puts bricks in the wall of the case that historical use is sufficient to establish right of way," Souvall said.

Souvall said he was there simply to ensure public access to the road, to argue against those who say the Civil War-era issue is irrelevant or "anachronistic." He said the state isn't there to claim it has been actively maintaining the route, but more simply to protect the public's access to the Angel Arch.

Bruce Bernard, attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice, argued that the public wasn't all that concerned with the road, which he said has been neglected by the state, county and public since the national park opened in 1964.

"Evidence of occasional use in a streambed does not constitute a road," Bernard argued. "By 1966 you could see some discontinuous pieces that show 10 percent route and 90 percent flood plain."

Bernard emphasized numerous times that R.S. 2477 "can't be recognized for a stream channel" that is prone to change with the weather.

He said the statute of limitations on this issue has long passed, that the road was only vaguely established in the 1960s and there is little evidence of its role as a public thoroughfare. He said the memories of those who used the roads had most likely "faded." He said a search for concrete documentation of a road came up with "very little."

"It was an ephemeral route until Jeeps started crossing the upper terraces in 1966," Bernard said. "All we have is testimony from old-timers. Most of the route is in the stream channel or alongside it. What was there in 1964?"

Ultimately, Bernard asked Jenkins to either cancel the trial due to passage of time or rule that the state and county governments failed to provide proof of their claims.

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

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