In a victory of David over Goliath, two powerful, well-funded environmental groups suffered a smack-down at the hands of a rural Utah county, when a U.S. court ruled the environmentalists couldn’t challenge the county’s ownership claims to dozens of roads on federal lands.
The 10th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled on January 11 that the Wilderness Society (TWS) and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) did not have standing to file a lawsuit against Kane County. In its 9-to-2 decision, the court stated that, “TWS has taken sides in what is essentially a property rights dispute between two landowners, only one of which is represented (Kane County). But TWS lacks any independent property rights of its own.”
Like many states in the inter-mountain West, Utah is stuck with the legacy of the federal government owning most of the land in the state. Bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, not the residents or elected officials in Utah, determine how this rural land is to be used.
The current dispute involves a Civil War-era stature, R.S. 2477, enacted to encourage settlement in the West, by promoting the construction of highways in the region. For well over a century, Kane County built dozens of roads crisscrossing federal land. But in 1996, the Clinton administration, without consulting any Utah officials, created the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, much of which is on land where Kane County built and maintained the roads. Among other things, monument designation gives the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the authority to limit access to the monument. Accordingly, BLM has put dozens of roads and trails off-limits to motorized vehicles.
BLM’s action has raised the ire of local officials and residents, and Kane County has retaliated by claiming ownership of over 60 roads, over half of them either within or bordering the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The fight over Utah’s roads will not end in the courtroom. “I plan to take the fight for Utah’s roads to Washington, D.C. to ensure that the state is able to access and utilize the resources it is entitled to,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) told Land Letter (Jan. 13). During his successful Senate campaign last fall, Lee, who argued Kane County’s case before the 10th Circuit Court earlier in the year, pledged to pursue legislation that would make it more difficult for the Interior secretary to cancel oil and natural gas leases on federal land. In fact, Lee is among a growing number of Utah officials that say states have the right to use eminent domain to seize federal lands.