Road to Angel Arch takes detour -- through court

Salt Creek » Trial begins Monday in decades-old Canyonlands dispute.
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The federal government says San Juan County and the state of Utah cannot prove a rugged route leading to Angel Arch in Canyonlands National Park ought to be an open-access road under county control.

But the southeastern Utah county says it maintained and improved Salt Creek road for decades before the park was established. The state also claims the road was used from the 1920s to 1965 to run cattle and haul supplies to established cowboy camps and was a Jeep road for visitors and uranium prospectors since at least 1954.

A two-week trial scheduled to begin Monday at 9 a.m. in federal court in Salt Lake City could settle the decades-long dispute. And if U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins sides with the county, it will be the first successful "quiet title" action since repeated rulings have declared that going to court road by road is the only way to settle county and state claims to corridors that cross federal lands.

Court documents indicate the trial may include a field trip to Salt Creek Canyon.

The fight over the two-track road -- which jogs in and out of a stream bottom for about 10 miles in the Needles section of the park on the way to Angel Arch -- has pitted off-highway-vehicle enthusiasts, the county and the state against the National Park Service and conservation organizations.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance successfully sued the National Park Service to close the road to off-highway riding due to environmental damage, a decision the NPS made provisionally in 2000 and finalized in 2003.

San Juan County sued, seeking to reopen a 7.5-mile stretch under Revised Statute 2477, an old mining law that granted rights of way across public land. That law was repealed by Congress in 1976, but existing claims were grandfathered in, leading to a series of road-ownership disputes that must be argued road by road in federal court.

The state intervened, arguing the county owned the road partly because it had been in general use even before the park's designation in 1964.

An unpaved, ungraded road -- which crisscrosses Salt Creek, the third-largest source of water in the park -- leads to Angel Arch, a popular destination for park visitors.

The canyon is known for its large, though mostly unsurveyed, collection of Anasazi ruins and artifacts. Its year-round stream also is home to three native fish species -- the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and speckled dace.

The list of witnesses for the federal government includes several Park Service and Bureau of Land Management officials, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, a cultural-resource manager and "an early visitor" to the Needles district of Canyonlands.

A Park Service study conducted several years ago concluded that even a few vehicles can lead to significant damage to vegetation, in violation of the federal law that created the national parks system.

The county's representatives say they have no intention of harming the environment, but the history of the route clearly shows its use dates to the late 1890s, when homesteading, cattle ranching and other agricultural activities depended on the road.

During the southeastern uranium boom of the 1950s, Salt Creek road had been bulldozed and improved for mining activity as well as Boy Scout expeditions, the lawsuit states.

The county's and state's witness list includes people with long memories of using the road, said County Attorney Craig Halls -- who recalled, as a member of Monticello High's Class of 1969, driving Jeeps up to Angel Arch.

Several people on the witness list, he said, "probably are going to testify on how they've used this road over their lifetimes."

But many potential witnesses already have died. "A lot of these roads," Halls said, "were built by people who were 40 or 50 [by 1976] for ranchers and miners and access to oil rigs when they were using wood-fired boilers to power the drilling operation."