Angel Arch in Canyonlands National Park would be cut off to much of the public -- those who couldn't make the rugged 20 mile round-trip hike -- if the National Park Service's closure of Salt Creek road is allowed to stand, attorneys for the state and San Juan County argued Monday.
But an attorney for the federal government countered that the county and state cannot show the road existed when the park was created in 1964, and if the county and state wanted to dispute the ownership of the trail, they should have made their claim decades ago.
Opening arguments in the two-week trial over the road were the latest in a long-running and contentious dispute between counties and the federal government over who owns a slew of historic trails across federal lands.
A ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2005 said each road had to be litigated independently. Salt Creek road is the first to make its way to the courts.
It presents a unique and "ephemeral" case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Bernard said Monday. That's because nearly 90 percent of the Salt Creek route follows a riverbed, and all traces of travel along the sandy bottom are routinely swept away by flash floods.
It is "a route that cannot persist," Bernard said. "This is not what Congress had in mind in granting the right of way ... a roving right of way that might go canyon wall to canyon wall over time."
But Shawn Welch, representing San Juan County, told U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins that he would present a long history of use of the trail by uranium prospectors, cowboys and Jeep riders journeying to Angel Arch, "the icon of Canyonlands National Park."
Today, 10 miles of the 12.5-mile path are closed by a gate the Park Service erected in 1998. The county is asking the judge to order the gate's removal, although traffic along the road would be allowed only with a Park Service permit.
"We're seeking to allow members of the public once again to see Angel Arch through vehicular traffic," Utah Assistant Attorney General Harry Souvall said. It is especially significant for people who cannot make the 20-mile hike to the 150-foot high span.
As a 13-year-old Boy Scout nearly six decades ago, Jim Morgan testified that he took his first trip up Salt Creek Canyon riding in a Jeep nearly all the way to Angel Arch. On subsequent trips, he visited American Indian pictographs and recovered artifacts.
Likewise, David Bronson, who is the San Juan County surveyor, made his debut trip to the arch when he was a teenager and went back a few times a year from 1967 until the time the Park Service closed it in 1998.
Bronson and Morgan were two witnesses presented by the county and state during the trial's first day. They were called to establish that the route through Salt Creek Canyon existed for decades, even before the creation of Canyonlands National Park in 1964.
Attorneys for the county and state also presented surveys dating back to 1911, historic references to a homesteader's cabin, maps from 1953 and documents of mining claims in the canyon to indicate that there was a history of travel in and out of the area.
They also pointed to the Canyonlands National Park plan, which referred to Salt Creek as a "major route" to Angel Arch.
The trial is scheduled to continue through next week with a tour of the road expected before closing arguments, probably in a helicopter because most of the road is impassible because floods and erosion have wiped it away since it was closed.