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Lawsuit accuses state of illegally pursuing road claims in Tooele County

Published: Wednesday, July 30 2014 2:57 p.m. MDT

A Stansbury Mountain peak from the switchbacks.

Steve Baker

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TOOELE — A lawsuit brought by wilderness advocates and a Tooele County pilot asserts the state of Utah its violating its own laws by going after ownership of more than 2,400 miles of disputed roads in Tooele County.

The action filed Tuesday in 3rd District Court in Tooele said the state's ability to seek title to so-called RS2477 roads lapsed 25 years ago — seven years after the 1976 passage of the Federal Land Management and Policy Act.

Steve Bloch, attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said state law bars Utah from bringing a lawsuit claiming title to real property unless it's a right or title accrued within seven years of the filing of the case.

"The state has simply waited too long to bring these RS2477 lawsuits, according to its own laws," he said. "We are asking the court to say that the state filed too late in Tooele County, and that is going to have ramifications statewide."

Bloch said having that seven-year deadline makes sense to protect property rights.

"If you think about it, the state should not be allowed to sit on its hands for an extended amount of time when it knows it has a claim to property," he added.

Two years ago, the state filed 22 lawsuits in separate counties against the U.S. Department of Interior seeking quiet title to disputed roads.

The routes in question are called RS2477 roads, named after a statute enacted in 1866 to promote settlement of the western United States by granting rights of way to states and counties for transportation.

The statute was repealed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, but that action was subject to "valid existing rights," giving rise to an interpretation by Utah and other Western states that the federal government can't forbid access.

Negotiations with the Interior Department over title to the roads have lingered and faltered for years, finally culminating in contentious legal battles in which both sides have been able to claim victory or been hit with some manner of defeat.

In this latest legal maneuvering, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has been joined in its claim by a member who is a Tooele County Boy Scout leader and pilot who says he has visited the land and it is land that would be harmed should Utah gain ownership of the routes.

Michael Abdo, according to the complaint, visits the designated wilderness and wilderness-quality lands for "aesthetic enjoyment and recreation."

"As a professional pilot, Mr. Abdo overflies Utah numerous times each year, and the industrial devastation encroaching on some of the state's most beautiful wilderness areas is clearly evident from such aerial reconnaissance," the complaint states.

The complaint adds that these roads and routes to which Utah seeks title impact the congressionally designated Cedar Mountain Wilderness area, as well as Deseret Peak and Stansbury wilderness.

"Other rights of way claimed by Tooele County run through wilderness study areas and lands proposed for wilderness in America's Red Rock Wilderness Act — areas possessing wilderness character but awaiting official wilderness designation," according to the complaint.

The Utah Attorney General's Office has 30 days to respond to the complaint.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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