A federal appeals court on Tuesday said the environmental group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the general public have the right to intervene in a lawsuit regarding roads in rural areas.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed a longstanding dispute over Salt Creek Road, a two-lane dirt road in Canyonlands National Park, that has been claimed by San Juan County.

The National Park Service closed the road to vehicles in 2000 after concerns arose about possible environmental damage and SUWA filed a lawsuit that resulted in the closure.

SUWA had tried to join another lawsuit involving the Park Service, which this time is fighting in court with San Juan County and the state of Utah over which jurisdiction owns the road. The county and state want the road reopened.

SUWA contends the Park Service and the U.S. government would not adequately represent its interests and, therefore, the environmental group wanted to participate.

The 10th Circuit Court's ruling did not grant SUWA the right to be a direct party to this latest lawsuit, but it did leave the door open for the possibility of more active participation as the suit progresses. It also allows intervention in other property disputes

"In that respect, which is the most important, we won," said Jim Angell, managing attorney for the Denver office of Earthjustice, which represents SUWA.

"It's not like we have this unqualified right to intervene. What Utah and the federal government tried to get the court to say was that the public was flatly prohibited from intervening in disputes over property ownership," Angell said.

"As the case goes forward, we'll be watching closely to make sure the federal government is defending itself vigorously. If not, we'll want to be involved and will intervene again. No matter what, we will file an amicus brief arguing our points."

Angell said SUWA was quite happy with the appeals court opinion because it rejected all the "Draconian and anti-public positions" put forth by Utah and the federal government.

E-mail: lindat@desnews.com