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Utah officials in the midst of filing lawsuits to win thousands of disputed roads over federal lands said Tuesday that their quest is about protecting families, not paving wilderness.

State and county officials are using an old congressional act granting local control of roads in continuous use for at least 10 years — a grant that Congress stopped making in 1976, leaving the state to prove that thousands of segments were in use before that time. It's a case in which time is running out, partly because witnesses who can vouch for any historic use are dying.

Utah Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow said at a news conference that the roads — in 25,000 segments crossing 45,000 miles — are important for family recreation and hunting, economic access to water and minerals, and desert safety.

He disputed environmentalists' charge that many of the roads aren't roads at all, but rather single-use Jeep trails on dry creek beds that could never pass as the "highways" mentioned in law.

"We will not be paving deer trails," Swallow said, but merely maintaining historic uses.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has alleged that many of the roads are impassable — and always were — for standard vehicles, and that the state's real motive is to put roads on maps through potential wilderness areas.

SUWA attorney Heidi McIntosh repeated those assertions Tuesday and questioned whether actual use justifies taxpayer costs that are sure to pile up. After all, courts have ruled that the state has to prove each road claim one by one.

"Thousands of these controversial claimed 'highways' were created, if at all, by random use and by now long-forgotten prospectors, cowboys and wanderers," she said. "Some were created in the course of mineral extraction, used once and then abandoned. But because there may be a mark or track on the ground, the state is now trying to claim legal right to them."

State officials acknowledged that a few roads may prove to be mistakes, just as SUWA has said it has no issue with some others. But Swallow said the state, facing a June statute of limitations for filing these lawsuits, couldn't wait to negotiate.

"We are forced to take our legal remedy," he said, "and go to court."

Harry Souvall, chief of the public lands section in the Utah Attorney General's Office, said roads existing in wilderness study areas — those places considered and managed as wilderness-worthy but not as-yet congressionally designated — should be recognized and be carved out as "cherry stems." The rest, he said, could still qualify as wilderness.

"It's been said this is an effort to defeat wilderness," he said. "It is not. It's simply to get wilderness to recognize roads that were on the ground."

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