A lonely two-lane highway that winds through Juab County's West Desert is the first claim by state officials for right of way through federally managed lands.
Known as the Weiss Highway to those few who travel it, the paved road extends west from Nephi to the Nevada border, providing access to ranchers who are scattered through western Juab County, County Commissioner William Howarth said. The road has existed for decades, at one time leading to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and has long been used by miners, law enforcement officers and outdoor recreators.
Howarth was on hand for a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the Utah headquarters of the Utah Bureau of Land Management, where Gov. Olene Walker formally submitted a claim for the Weiss Highway to the BLM. The state could potentially submit thousands of claims for right of way to roads under the RS 2477 statute during coming years, and many of those roads are needed travel routes that should be protected, Howarth said.
"The roads were built for a purpose, and they were maintained," he said. "We hope and pray they'll remain open for multiple uses."
The claim is the first under a memorandum of understanding signed between former Gov. Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Gale Norton last year that allows the state to gain title to the road if it meets a defined set of standards. Those standards require that the road existed prior to 1976, that cars and trucks can drive on it and that it is not in a reserved or protected area such as a national park, refuge or Indian reservation.
The RS 2477 statute was intended to give prospectors easy access to their claims by granting use of rights of way for roads and trails over federal lands that are not reserved for public use. It was repealed in 1976, but any road in place prior to that time would still qualify as a local right-of-way under the old law.
Lawson LeGate, senior southwest region representative for the Sierra Club, said that he has not heard of any opposition to the Weiss Highway claim, and that it probably won't be disputed.
The larger issue that the claim will highlight, however, is whether any road claims should be considered under the old statutes instead of the laws governing federal land management passed since 1976.
"A paved road that has been paved for many, many years will probably not be controversial," he said. "But we need to consider whether we should look at it under our modern laws."
For her part, Walker submitted the application with a large sense of relief and said that while it may take years to finish the claims, it felt great to get started.
"It's been years that we've been talking about this, and we've been looking forward to the day we submitted that first application," she said. "I don't know if we should celebrate or stand up and cheer or what."
Sally Wisely, state director for the BLM in Utah, said that she hoped that the claims can bring an end to the dispute that has simmered between federal land managers, state officials and county leaders. She also applauded the choice of the Weiss Highway.
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