Road access in dispute at Little Hole

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The battle over Little Hole is anything but little, and looks to be growing bigger every day.

Two state agencies are butting heads over whether 365 acres of school trust land along that blue-ribbon fishery on the Green River in northeast Utah should transfer to private hands.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration has brushed aside a dictum by wildlife officials who are denying access to the Daggett County land near Dutch John.

SITLA contends there is a historic right-of-way to the controversial parcel - and it will fight for it. The state Division of Wildlife Resources, on the other hand, has stated the roadway does not extend into SITLA land.

Different Daggett County maps appear to show different road delineations.

One map shows the road that originally forded the Green River near Little Hole does not pass through the SITLA acreage. But a second map seems to suggest it might have.

"We're confident there is access," said SITLA Director Kevin Carter. "Our attorneys have looked at the data - maps, affidavits and photos - documenting the presence of that road."

According to a Utah law, commonly called the "10-Year User Statute," any thoroughfare plied by the public for a decade or more remains a right-of-way, said Lynn Stevens, coordinator for the Governor's Office of Public Lands Policy.

SITLA is considering leasing its acreage on the river's south side to Flint Timber. The Georgia-based developer has proposed a private resort there that includes 10 cabins and a lodge.

But the only access to the property is a class-D dirt road through DWR land. In July, Assistant Attorney General Marty Bushman sent a letter to SITLA, saying the route in question does not enter the school trust parcel. A lessee or purchaser would not have access to the land.

DWR had unsuccessfully sought the acreage as wildlife habitat, offering to purchase it at fair market value or trade for other lands. SITLA turned down the offer.

SITLA still could determine to sell the land, rather than lease it. If the parcel were put up for auction, DWR could bid against Flint Timber and other interested parties.

Nonetheless, a purchase by private entities would require public access.

"They either have access to the land or they don't," said David Serdar, president of Stonefly Society of the Wasatch, a chapter of Trout Unlimited. If SITLA leases the land to Flint Timber, fishers will appeal, Serdar said.

"We'll keep fighting them. Who knows how far it will go."

His group and other fishing interests say a commercial development there could harm spawning waters of cutthroat trout, not to mention spoiling the rugged ambience of the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam.

Because the controversial road is long and poorly constructed, fishers fear the lodge could not operate without ferrying employees and supplies across the Green at Little Hole, Serdar said.

"If you build a lodge on the north side of the river by Dutch John, we have no problem. But the lodge can't operate efficiently on the other side. Shuttling employees, garbage and other things across that river is out of place."

But Daggett County officials, whose maps conflict with one another, say they won't stand in the way of the proposed development.

Ninety percent of the county is state or federal land. This puts a strain on economic development, said County Commissioner Craig Collett.

"The last business to open in the county was seven years ago," he said. "We're certainly interested in new business; we've been economically depressed."

A recent analysis by Daggett County indicates that there is evidence of a historic right-of-way to the SITLA land, Collett said.

"We talked to people who lived there as early as the 1940s and they say the road was there," he said. "We're not necessarily siding with SITLA, but we're saying there was a public road."