SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Attorney General’s office is at the helm of 30 lawsuits against the federal government, and the first was decided in the state’s favor this week.
At issue is the state or county seeking a right-of-way – or the right to use – thousands of miles of undeveloped roads and trails on federal land. Some are in environmentally sensitive or potential wilderness areas.
Steve Bloch, litigation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, says this case took five years and involves only 12 of 14,000 right-of-way claims the state has made, so it could be a long and bumpy road for all parties involved.
“Those lawsuits are incredibly expensive to prosecute,” he said, “and it’s the taxpayers of Utah who are unwittingly footing the bill – and it’s going to take years.”
Counties contend they need more control over roads that they sometimes have to maintain. But Bloch believes the objective is to help the state gain control of federal land and keep it from getting wilderness protections.
To make their case, Bloch explained, the state and counties are using a 150-year-old federal mining law written to encourage settlement of the West. Some of the rights-of-way are well-maintained gravel roads, he added, but others aren’t recognizable as paths or trails.
“The rhetoric you’ll hear from the state is that these routes are an integral aspect of state and county transportation plans,” he said. “That’s just simply not the case.”
The court ruled that a road doesn’t have to be frequently used or maintained to be considered “public.” In all, the 30 lawsuits cover almost 35,000 miles of Utah’s dirt roads and trails on public lands.
The case decided this week is Kane County vs. United States of America, Case No. 2:08-cv-00315, in U.S. District Court. For now, conservation groups are on the sidelines watching the litigation play out. Bloch said they expect the decision to be appealed.