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Utah is suing the federal government in 22 counties, demanding title to thousands of miles of routes across public lands.
But in a new move that could sharply narrow the disputes, federal lawyers and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are arguing the state waited decades too long to file its claims.
They disagree, however, on which legal deadline applies.
Asking a judge to dismiss Garfield County's claims, federal attorneys point to a federal act. SUWA, attacking Tooele County's claims, cites a state law in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in 3rd District Court in Tooele.
"Case law is thin in this area" said SUWA legal director Steve Bloch, "and we are hopeful this is a tool to challenge state's wasteful spending and anti-wilderness agenda."
State lawyers are still preparing a response to the federal filing and have yet to study the argument raised in the SUWA suit.
But Tony Rampton, the assistant Utah attorney general spearheading state litigation over the routes, believes the statute SUWA invokes may not be relevant.
The claims date back to a Civil War-era statute known as RS 2477, which once granted counties title to routes crossing public land. It was repealed with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, in 1976.
To prevail on a particular route claim under the federal Quiet Title Act today, counties must document 10 years of continuous use prior to 1976.
SUWA says a state law gives Utah seven years to file suits over real property once its right to the property accrues.
That accrual began when FLPMA passed in 1976, SUWA argues, closing the door on RS 2477 claims in 1983.
In Garfield County's case before U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups, federal lawyers cite a 12-year statute of limitations, or legal deadline, that begins running when counties are put on notice they have a road claim.
That clock started running in the early 1980s, they argue, when the designations of various wilderness study areas were posted on the Federal Register.
The federal Quiet Title Act, Rampton said, "has its own 12-year statute of limitations. If there is a conflict between that act and a state statute, which appears there might be in this case, then the Supremacy Clause [of the U.S. Constitution] requires federal law to control."
Utah is now overseeing two dozen lawsuits filed mostly in 2011 and 2012 over a total of 14,000 route segments on 35,000 miles.
No Utah county has more Bureau of Land Management land than Tooele, whose RS 2477 suit claims 709 routes covering 2,415 miles. Fourteen miles are in or border three congressionally designated wilderness areas. Another 130 miles penetrate into lands proposed for protection under America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, including 27 miles in study areas, according to the SUWA suit.
One route segment climbs up the left fork of Miner's Canyon in the north end of Stansbury Mountains, an area proposed for permanent wilderness protection.
"Parts are so washed out I would hardly consider it a trail," said Tooele resident Michael Abdo, a SUWA member who is listed as a plaintiff in its suit. "It goes to a mine site. It's so eroded, I have no idea how long it's been out of use. These roads don't really exist except in their imagination."
He also pointed to Cedar Mountain and Indian Peaks, where the county claims rights of way 66 feet wide based on dirt tracks,
Local officials say they simply hope to preserve public access.
"They are trying to rob the people of their historical uses," said Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne.