Ray Boren, Deseret Morning News Archives </i>
Salt Creek Canyon road goes into Canyonlands Angel Arch Canyon.

A federal judge is being asked to unlock Salt Creek Canyon road, a controversial closed-off route inside Canyonlands National Park.

San Juan County earlier this week filed a complaint before U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Jenkins seeking to force the National Park Service to reopen the road — closed to vehicles for the past six years — into Angel Arch Canyon, one of the most spectacular scenic areas in the park.

In its complaint, San Juan County contends the road existed before Congress created Canyonlands National Park in 1964. The county, therefore, contends the road is a county road under a federal Mining Law of 1866, also known as RS 2477, which granted counties rights of way across public lands.

Commissioners say the road was used in the 1920s as a cattle drive to haul supplies into cowboy camps. By 1954, hikers and off-road vehicle users used the road to have picnics at Angel Arch.

"For many years, people had unrestricted use of that road. When the Park Service closed the road, people were denied to see Angel Arch," said San Juan County Commission Chairman Lynn Stevens. "I have families who write me letters saying, 'We remember holding family picnics there, but Grandpa is too old to hike into it, so can we take a vehicle in there?' "

The controversy on the road dates back to 1995, when Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service over its management plan and argued that Salt Creek, a rare source of water in Canyonlands National Park, is being ruined by jeep use.

In 1998, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball threw out some of SUWA's claims over the park's management plan but agreed that Salt Creek road should be closed. Off-road vehicle groups appealed the decision to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded the case back to Kimball for further review. In the end, the Park Service decided to close the road to study recovery efforts.

"It is important to keep the road closed," said Tony Schetzsle, Canyonlands National Park's new superintendent. (Schetzsle replaced Jerry Banta, who retired about two months ago). "What San Juan County contends is they have a valid right of way in the canyon, and as such, it has a right to maintain and use that trail for vehicles. The National Park Service does not recognize it as a valid RS 2477."

SUWA, which started the legal ball rolling in 1995, will likely seek to intervene in the court case in order to make sure the road is kept closed off to vehicles.

Heidi McIntosh, conservation director of SUWA, said lost in the legal maneuvering is the threat of counties taking control over trails inside national parks because ranchers and miners used them at one time.

"We're talking about uses that occurred decades ago that people have long forgotten about," McIntosh said. "It's like the ghost of the past re-emerging and threatening places that are now much beloved and cherished by all Americans."

E-mail: donna@desnews.com