Utah launches lawsuit to secure rights to public roads
The Utah Attorney General's Office filed lawsuits recently accusing the federal government of illegally taking control of nearly 4,000 state and county roads in 13 counties. The 13 separate complaints allege the federal government's actions have hurt public access, damaged the economy and put motorists at risk.
"The federal government has ignored its own laws, changed its own rules to take away roads and access to our lands," says Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow. "Despite what our critics say, these roads do go somewhere and we need to make sure they are safe enough to provide access for Utah families and resources."
The complaints are based on an 1866 law known as R.S. 2477 which was used to recognize and validate a system of highways and roads in the West. The law was repealed in 1976 but Congress granted states and counties a right-of-way to roads that already existed.
Jay Christiansen grew up near some of the contested roads near Ibapah in Tooele County. The retired iron worker used to go with his family to pick pine nuts, hunt and explore the Deep Creek Mountains. "These roads mean a lot to me and my family," says Christiansen. "We couldn't believe it that anyone would want to shut them down."
"We have made numerous efforts to resolve the R.S. 2477 controversy with the federal government without success," says Assistant Attorney General Harry Souvall. "The only actual recognition of rights-of-way have been through taking the matter to court. Some of our witnesses who can testify about the pre-1976 roads are getting old and we firmly believe it is time to bring the R.S. 2477 debate to a conclusion as quickly as possible."
The Utah Attorney General's Office has been working on the lawsuits with the counties and in cooperation with the Governor's Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office.
"Utahns need these roads because two-thirds of our state is federal land. You really can't get there from here if these roads do not remain public," says Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinator Kathleen Clarke.
The lawsuits include thousands of pages of records and testimony on how the roads were screened and how they were used historically. Five lawsuits were filed on May 3, another five were filed on May 4 and three lawsuits were filed May 8. Here is the breakdown for each county:
* Beaver County---474 roads
* Carbon County---71 roads
* Duchesne County---73 roads
* Rich County---223 roads
* Utah County---39 roads
* Box Elder County---196 roads
* Emery County---365 roads
* Piute County---101 roads
* Sanpete County---329 roads
* Wayne County---341 roads
* Millard County---789 roads
* Sevier County---713 roads
* Daggett County---73 roads
* Total Roads---3,787 roads
Last December Utah gave the federal government notice that the state planned to file lawsuits concerning about 19,000 roads in 22 counties. After detailed review, this number of roads has been reduced to 12,000.
The Attorney General's Office had already filed two lawsuits in November over 710 road segments in Kane County and 94 roads in Garfield County. The remaining lawsuits will be filed over the next week.
The issue was summed up in the Beaver County complaint this way: "The confusion regarding the existence, location, scope, and ownership of roads over R.S. 2477 rights-of-way at issue in this case has created dangerous lapses in road maintenance, uncertainty regarding future road funding, and economic injuries to the State of Utah and Beaver County which only resolution by the Court can redress."
Information, maps and photos of the roads can be seen at this link: http://recorded2477roads.utah.gov/. Copies of the lawsuits can be made available upon request.