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Kane County Commission
Commissioners Mark Habbeshaw, Daniel Hulet and Doug Heaton and Rep. Mike Noel stand near Skutumpah Road.

KANAB, Kane County — Kane County officials are celebrating what they say is the first concession in Utah of the federal government agreeing to grant right-of-way access to disputed roads that cross federal lands.

In a press release sent out late Tuesday by the Kane County Commission, the change allows the county to assert control and access over 27 miles of the 33-mile Skutumpah Road, which is a back road leading to Cannonville and is within boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Although the victory does come as a result of a stipulation made by Department of Justice attorneys in U.S. federal court, the agreement could be the start of a path that lays out a simpler way to solve such disputes through negotiation, rather than protracted litigation.

"This shows that the process can be real simple and easy if the federal government cooperates in cases like this where you have roads that are no-brainers; simple roads that we ought to be able to take care of," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.

So-called RS 2477 rights-of-way were granted to states and counties from 1866 to 1976 to facilitate transportation and settlement needs in the Western United States. Although repealed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, all established "RS 2477" roads were grandfathered in as valid existing rights.

Shifts in policy, however, and political pressure have led to contentious battles over the roads, many of which cross scenic lands but also have entrenched historical use.

Such battles have pitted local government officials who say roads used for access for decades need to remain open, while environmentalists say continued use poses unacceptable detrimental impacts.

Just this summer, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar authorized a pilot project to have some of the Utah disputes on less-controversial roads worked out through round-table negotiations that bring together environmentalists and state and county officials. Talks are already going on in Iron County.

In this portion of the fight, settled Tuesday, access to the road came out of quiet title litigation over a total of 15 roads.

The county release says while those fights will continue, U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups advised some sort of settlement needed to be reached on Skutumpah because Kane County was put in a "Catch 22."

Noel said that while the "width" of the road the county can control has yet to be settled, the stipulation reached Tuesday allows the county to immediately begin maintenance.