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Rural road fights in Utah heat up with more lawsuits

Published: Tuesday, May 8 2012 4:23 p.m. MDT

Cedar Mountain Wilderness area south of Delle, Tooele County. Critics of the RS2477 lawsuits say wilderness areas would be in jeopardy if Utah prevails in its fight.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's legal fight to claim 12,000 roads isn't about paving deer trails or putting in four-lane highways, but about preserving access by residents to roads with long, historical use.

That characterization of what is likely to be a protracted battle unfolding in federal court was emphasized Tuesday by Utah's chief deputy attorney general John Swallow during a press conference detailing the state's plans in the controversial RS2477 right-of-way dispute.

"This is a monumental day for access," Swallow said, "and standing up for Utah residents."

The fight pits the state and 22 counties against the U.S. Department of the Interior over preserving rights of way to Civil War-era roads, trails and routes granted to local government under a statute called RS2477. The intent was to facilitate the development of public transportation in the West.

Tired of stalled negotiations and facing a legal deadline to declare an intent to preserve access, Swallow said the state and counties have filed lawsuits seeking ownership of 3,787 roads in 13 counties since early May. Lawsuits from the remaining counties will be filed in the coming week.

Groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said the RS2477 fight is about the state ensuring resource extraction remains an option in pristine wilderness areas regardless of the destruction that may result.

"This is about promoting the anti-lands agenda much more than meeting any legitimate transportation need," said Heidi McIntosh, SUWA's associate director. "The routes in the litigation are not the result of any transportation planning."

Harry Souvall, chief of the Utah Attorney General's Office public lands section, countered that the roads in dispute have a tradition of historical use documented by the federal government's own maps and are roads "already on the ground."

"They were there before Wilderness Study Areas were ever formed and they are still there today."

As an example of how some of the disputed roads are integral to Utah's historical fabric,  Jay Christiansen described how he grew up using the roads near Ibapah in Tooele County.

"I've been on all those roads many times out there," he said at the news conference. His family used to own the Last Chance Ranch, and he said he remembers his father using the roads to gather firewood and hunt.

Christiansen's sister, Jolene Sherwood, said she resents the roads being described by environmentalists as "roads to nowhere," because for her family, they have been roads used for horseback riding, to get to family picnics or play by dune buggy.

"We're outdoors people and enjoy them."

Souvall said the state has waded into negotiations with the federal government in good faith to settle claims to the roads, but it hasn't proved fruitful despite more than a decade of talking.

"The only RS2477 roads recognized are the ones we have won in court," Souvall said.

Although the RS2477 statute was repealed in 1976 with the enactment of a federal land planning act, the rights-of-way to routes already established were grandfathered in to the counties and the states.

It is up to the state and the counties involved in the fight to prove a decade of historical, continuous use, but time is the enemy, Souvall said.

"Our witnesses are getting old."

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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