SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge on Friday sided with the National Park Service, which erected a gate to block motorized access to the Canyonlands' popular Angel Arch more than a decade ago.
The gate, which went up in 1998, was deemed legal and justified by U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins, who wrote in his decision that San Juan County and state officials had failed to establish proof that the dried-up Salt Creek Canyon river-bed ever had a history of continuous use.
"A jeep trail on a creek bed, with its shifting sand and intermittent floods is a by-way, but not a highway," he wrote.
In his 81-page opinion, Jenkins rejected claims by the county and state that early homesteading, cattle herding by private ranching interests, and sporadic, exploratory trips by tourists had carved a right-of-way on the road within Canyonlands National Park.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said Angel Arch — which is considered by many to be the most beautiful and spectacular arch in the park, if not the entire canyon country — was one of the main reasons behind Canyonlands' designation as a national park.
"I am extremely disappointed and extremely unhappy that we did not prevail," he said, adding that the county "is weighing all our options" and considering an appeal.
"That's our road and closing it denies the public access to one of the most beautiful parts of San Juan County," Adams said. "Citizens deserve to access that spot."
It's roughly a 12-mile hike to the arch, the only way to access it without the use of four-wheel-drive, he said. That fact has severely limited the number of tourists who frequent the area. "It denies Americans the right to their property," Adams said.
Of the approximately 5 million acres of land within San Juan County, Adams said 92 percent of it is publicly owned.
"We're already fairly intruded upon by the federal government," he said, adding that the county would have agreed to allow a limited number of vehicles on the route each year if such an agreement could have been reached.
The case was filed in June 2004, after the National Park Service issued a final rule closing the canyon to motor vehicles. Jenkins presided over a nine-day bench trial in the case, starting Sept. 14, 2009. The court heard testimony, received numerous exhibits and conducted a site visit at Canyonlands National Park.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen said she is pleased with the court's decision.
"The decision will provide the National Park Service with the guidance it needs to move forward and manage Salt Creek Canyon in a manner which will preserve its superlative scenic, scientific and archaeologic features for the enjoyment of the public," Christensen said.
San Juan County and the state of Utah are also required to pay all legal costs for the proceedings.
The claimed Salt Creek road starts at a location known as Cave Springs and travels roughly 10.5 miles up the canyon, to its junction with Angel Arch Canyon. From the junction, the road travels another 1.3 miles to a flat, slick rock area, approximately 300 yards from the arch.