Could it be that the ancient and simple art of compromise might yet bring resolution to the decades-old battle over thousands of roads through federal lands in Utah? An agreement reached on three routes in the Deep Creek Mountains in Juab County seems to offer some hope, but nobody should get too excited yet.
While environmental groups praised the agreement, and it is, indeed, good news, it addresses fewer than 25 miles of pathways into a wilderness study area. Still in dispute is title to more than 14,000 routes through public lands that counties and the state of Utah are demanding the federal government turn over.
In the Deep Creek agreement, Juab County agreed to abandon some of its rights-of-way claims and enact ordinances limiting motorized use in its share of the 69,000-acre wilderness study area in the scenic West Desert mountain range. The state would be awarded title to portions of three disputed routes. County officials signed off on a consent decree that was filed Monday in U.S. District Court.
The settlement marks the first among numerous lawsuits the state has brought citing the statute known as R.S. 2477, which was repealed in 1976 after being on the books for more than a century. It allows the state to gain title to roads crossing public lands if it can prove 10 years of continuous public use prior to the law's repeal 37 years ago.
If U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell signs the decree, the state will be awarded title to portions of routes into Trout Creek, Granite and Tom's canyons on the Deep Creeks' east slope. Granite and Tom's canyons extend a few miles into the wilderness study area of the mountain range. The state and county presented historical evidence of adequate use by locals on some portions of the roads.
However, there was not enough evidence that the entirety of all three routes was of historical use, despite arguments by the attorney general's office that all the roads into the WSA had been in general use for decades.
Courts have previously ruled that ownership of each of the thousands of disputed routes must be decided separately. That means, without counties owning up to the limited use of many of the "roads" and accepting compromise as Juab has done, Utah could be spending many more millions of taxpayer dollars fighting for rights of way that serve only to prevent wilderness designation.