Analysis: Wilderness roads lead to court

By HIL ANDERSON, UPI Western Regional Editor  |  June 28, 2004 at 6:46 PM
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LOS ANGELES, June 28 (UPI) -- The spirit of compromise over long-running environmental disputes was an endangered species Monday as a congressional subcommittee met in Utah to hash out the definition of a road as it applies to "roadless" wilderness areas in the state.

The House Resources Committee's panel on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands held a field hearing in St. George in an attempt to salvage an agreement between the state and the federal government aimed at keeping disputes over the development and protection of pristine federal lands out of the court system.

But the dispute over the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Utah and the Bureau of Land Management -- which has come to be known by the shorthand designation R.S. 2477 -- involves the environmental movement and the property-rights crowd, two camps often diametrically opposed to one another in terms of their philosophy over human activity in remote Western lands.

"Such review is critical because other states throughout the West, including California, will likely use the MOU as a blueprint to resolve their R.S. 2477 claims," Subcommittee Chairman Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., explained prior to the hearing.

Radanovich indicated the subcommittee would be giving the agreement a top-to-bottom review, including "the process used in developing the MOU ... and the positive and negative aspects of the MOU."

Radanovich was right in wanting to make sure everything about the R.S. 2477 agreement passes legal muster due to the fact that a number of environmental groups see the deal as one aimed exclusively at blocking any future attempts to set aside areas as protected wilderness areas.

On its surface, the R.S. 2477 agreement looks like a compromise that would allow rural Utahns and visitors from the city looking for a little harmless recreation to continue to have some access to the backcountry.

However, there are views of the pact that are poles apart and reminiscent of the beefs over such environmental issues as restrictions on power-plant mercury emissions and the clearing out of overgrown forests in the fire-prone Western mountains.

The agreement on the table Monday came last year in the form of an MOU to preserve the rights of way on federal lands granted by Washington to local governments in Utah as far back as late 19th century for the construction of roads. Rights of way that were preserved by a revised statute designated R.S. 2477 run along existing roads, known in legal terms as "highways," and have been credited with helping small frontier towns establish themselves and were eventually instrumental in the development of the highway system in the West.

"Access to these roads is critical to growth in rural Utah, allowing for private-property rights, economic development, emergency vehicles and recreational opportunities," declared Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. "If the federal government will not provide access nor allow the counties to exercise their rights and responsibilities, the future of the West and the people who live there is in jeopardy."

It may sound like a pretty heady claim to make; however, the hardy sons and daughters of pioneers depend upon the land to carry out their occupations as ranchers, farmers, miners and caterers to the tourist trade. It would seem perfectly acceptable to allow a few two-lane roads to exist so that they could go about their business.

But there is a catch that environmentalists have alertly seen as having the potential to undo virtually all protections on lands in the area.

Critics claims the "rights of way" are far too numerous and have the effect of declaring countless crude trails to be "highways" despite the fact it would likely require a serious four-wheel drive vehicle to navigate them.

And as bad as these roads might be, they all lead directly to the heart of the roadless-wilderness designations that many conservationists see as the best and possibly only way to prevent the piecemeal destruction of areas that should be considered national treasures.

"Elected officials in some states and counties are joining with special interests to exploit this R.S. 2477 loophole," the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said in a statement. "With the help of the Bush administration, they are using it to propose thousands of so-called highways through America's national parks, monuments and wilderness."

These so-called roads could have the effect of dramatically reducing the amount of land eligible for wilderness designation, since by law a wilderness must consist of a 5,000-acre chunk of land unmarred by roads -- so if a lonely cart path meandering across an otherwise virgin area is declared to be a road, the chance of it becoming a national wilderness area goes down the drain.

That's just fine for a lot of rural Westerners who object to any restrictions on their business; however, it also opens the door for cavalier mistreatment of fragile eco-systems and disregard for the "environmental stewardship" that is saluted by Washington as a concept but is often trickier to define.


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