The fight between the state and the Bureau of Land Management over a number of closed roads in wilderness areas continues, and a handful of environmental groups wants in the mix.
Attorneys for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club argued last week in U.S. District Court the groups have the right to intervene in the state's 2005 lawsuit over control of seven dirt roads in Emery County's San Rafael Swell.
In the lawsuit, both the state and Emery County lay claim to the roads under RS 2477, a statute that dates back to 1860 but was repealed in 1976. Though it was repealed, any route in use before then might come under RS 2477.
Federal officials and environmental activists, however, argue opening the roads will have a negative impact on the area. A BLM attorney said he doesn't want SUWA intervening, but an attorney for the environmental groups said neither the state nor the federal government has the best interest of Utah's wildlands in mind.
"There's a long and historic disconnect" between SUWA and the BLM, attorney Edward Zukoski said. "Forgive us if we're a little skeptical."
Where the BLM has taken "baby steps" toward environmental protection, he said, SUWA would like to see greater strides. Whatever the case, the state's attempt to wrest control of the roads "drives a stake through the heart of that progress," Zukoski said.
Roger R. Fairbanks, the assistant attorney general in the suit, said the BLM has closed roads leading into wilderness-quality areas, in some instances placing boulders in the roadway. If the state is successful in winning control of the rights of way, the roads could be improved and widened to two lanes.
Zukoski said improved roads will mean increased traffic in the areas, but Fairbanks said the roads would not be improved beyond their condition in 1976.
"The notion that we want to go out and pave wilderness is fiction," he said.
Late last year, the state dropped a lawsuit against the BLM over control of roadways in six counties because the roads were already highly developed and the parties did not disagree over their use, Fairbanks said. State officials have continued to fight to open roads in Canyonlands National Park, Deep Creek and the San Rafael Swell.
A federal appellate court has already denied SUWA's attempt to intervene in the Canyonlands suit, saying the group's interests were already being represented by the BLM. Last week, however, a federal judge permitted SUWA to intervene in the lawsuit concerning Deep Creek.U.S. District Judge Dee Benson will now decide if the activist group has the right to intervene in the Emery County suit.
E-mail: [email protected]