SALT LAKE CITY — Foes in a protracted legal battle over disputed roads are hailing a settlement agreement as a first — a step on the path of compromise that could help resolve a contentious legal battle pitting protection of Utah resources against public access.
"We agreed to resolve the dispute," said Harry Souvall, the public lands section chief in the Utah Attorney General's Office. "We hope it is the template to resolve issues in other cases, particularly where we have roads that go into sensitive areas."
The settlement, if signed by a federal judge, opens up for public access three roads near the western border of Juab County, particularly the Granite Canyon road leading to Camp Ethel. Under the agreement, the federal government agreed to remove fallen trees and any other obstacles to the camp, while the state agreed the road shall be kept in a "primitive" state.
Souvall said the settlement is notable because it opens up public access for the first time into a wilderness study area boundary. All three of the roads are in Deep Creek Mountains. The other roads are Toms Creek and Trout Creek.
Earthjustice, along with other conservation groups, praised the negotiated deal.
"This settlement reflects a case where everyone understood the need to protect special places from too many roads and the threats that motorized use pose for one of the Great Basin’s most remote and remarkably beautiful places,” said Heidi McIntosh of Earthjustice. “The Deep Creek settlement may prove to be a model for resolving many of the thousands of claims that remain.”
The agreement settles a handful of the state's and Juab County’s right-of-way claims on BLM-managed roads, the subject of a lawsuit filed in 2005 against the federal government.
It marks the first negotiated resolution of the claims filed by the state on behalf of 22 counties to 12,400 miles of so-called RS2477 routes, trails or roads.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office filed 22 lawsuits based on rights-of-way given to states and counties in the Civil War era to foster a transportation system. The law has since been repealed, but the rights-of-way were supposed to be grandfathered in. At issue is the interpretation of what constitutes a road, if the rights are valid, and the fact that some of the routes exist in sensitive wilderness areas.
In the negotiation hammered out over several years, the state and Juab County agreed to give up claimed roads in several canyons leading into the Deep Creek Mountains, while conservationists agreed not to oppose limited motor vehicle use at two locations where historic use was evident.
Souvall said the state and Juab County also agreed not to pursue claims for several alleged rights-of-way in neighboring lands proposed for wilderness designation in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.
The agreement also calls for water quality monitoring and an expansion of a roadless area near the Deep Creeks. It preserved claims to 12 roads still in dispute.
Souvall said motorized vehicles will only be allowed on the roads between June and November, but recreational activity is subject to additional monitoring by the BLM and Juab County.
Environmental groups said the settlement represents a good first step.
“This settlement shows that even the most divisive of issues surrounding our public lands can be resolved if reasonable minds are willing to come to the table,” said Phil Hanceford, assistant director of agency policy and planning at The Wilderness Society.
“It gives us hope that we can work together with diverse stakeholders elsewhere in Utah to provide more certainty and protection for our wildest public lands.”