MONTICELLO — The San Juan County Sheriff's Office has launched a criminal investigation into whether the Bureau of Land Management illegally closed a county dirt road, the latest dust-up in a long-standing battle over federal-state jurisdiction involving rural Utah roadways.
Sheriff Rick Eldredge claims heavy equipment was used sometime last fall to make an earthen berm blocking access to the road on BLM property in the Creek Pasture area east of Canyonlands National Park. Two BLM signs that said 'road closed' were also installed on the road, which provides access to a camping area, Eldredge said.
"Some citizens in San Juan County noticed the road had been closed off and went to the local BLM offices," he said. "They were told by the BLM that the road was not closed. Then they showed them the pictures."
He said the federal agency immediately sent employees to remove much of the berm with shovels and take down the signs, but local residents and authorities remain angry and believe at the very least the agency violated its own policies.
"We do not want to be tread on by the federal government," Eldredge said. 'We want them to go through proper channels in coordinating and cooperating with San Juan County."
Eldredge says he has been trying to determine if any state statute may have been violated with the blocked access to the road and if the BLM skirted public notice requirements under federal statutes. He said the closure is especially ironic given that the agency had been working with local residents on a management plan for a potential ATV trail in the area.
County Commission Chair Bruce Adams said it is important that the BLM follow its own rules, especially given its pursuit of criminal investigations of local residents.
"The county commission has had a pretty good working relationship with the BLM, but we are acting on behalf of our citizens," Adams said. "We just think the law applies to everyone equally."
Adams and Eldredge said area residents remain outraged over what he says were exorbitant fines levied against a pair of Blanding residents in January of 2011. In a BLM case prosecuted in federal court, a judge fined two men a total of $35,000 over damage to an archaeological area in Recapture Canyon.
"If citizens are going to be held accountable for disturbing some ground, cutting down some poles … if they are going to be held accountable for these type of things, then everybody needs to be held accountable," Eldredge said.
Eldredge added the BLM's law enforcement division has been notified and agents are conducting a parallel investigation.
"Our law enforcement will be reviewing the information the San Juan County's Office shares with us and we will then determine the appropriate action to take at that time," said Beverly Gorny, Utah BLM spokeswoman.
The road alleged to have been improperly closed for as long as three months is a road San Juan County has asserted claims to under RS2477. RS2477 is a federal Civil War era law that granted rights-of-way to counties and states to foster transportation in the rural western United States. It was later repealed with the condition "valid" existing rights would be recognized.
Claims to those disputed RS2477 roads have pitted the federal government against Utah and numerous counties, giving rise to contentious, protracted litigation and the creation of a pilot program by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to help resolve the disagreements.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, a key political champion of local rights to RS2477 and an ardent critic of the federal government, said if the allegations bear out over the San Juan County road closure, the BLM employees responsible should be held to the strictest scrutiny and accountability.
"I am so glad the county is pushing this and so happy the sheriff did this," he said. "It just shows the gall of the federal government at this time, in this administration, and the attitude toward the rights of the citizens of the state of Utah."