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Old 03-06-2005, 08:31 AM   #1 (permalink)
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State may join suit claiming park road

State may join suit claiming park road
Salt Creek Road: San Juan County wants to open access to Angel Arch; critics say cars damage the terrain
By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
The state wants to join with San Juan County in suing the federal government to gain ownership of an overgrown road that runs several miles into Canyonlands National Park.
Utah's motion to intervene, filed Thursday, has been anticipated since last summer, when the state quietly informed the Bush administration it planned to sue to reopen 7 1/2 miles of the road to vehicle traffic.
The state essentially wants to co-own the road with San Juan County, said Assistant Utah Attorney General Ralph Finlayson. The prospect alarms environmentalists and national park advocates, who fear the courts could set a bad precedent.
"Under the county's and the state's theory, these tracks would be virtually immune from regulation by the National Park Service and other federal land managers and could not be closed no matter how much they are damaging the public lands," said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The trail in question, known as the Salt Creek Road, is an unpaved, ungraded trail that crisscrosses Salt Creek, the third-largest source of water in the park. The road leads to Angel Arch, a popular destination for park visitors.
"The environmentalists make it sound like [opening the road] is a terrible thing," Finlayson said. "But we believe this road makes it possible for people to go see Angel Arch who aren't just athletic hikers.
"It also is economically vital to the county because of tours that go up to Angel Arch, or have in the past. We don't intend to trash the road any more than the environmentalists do."
But Craig Obey, vice president for government affairs of the National Parks and Conservation Association, said the state seems to be backtracking on an agreement it signed in 2003 with the Interior Department over procedures for claiming roads on federal lands in which national parks were exempt. The state's attempt to gain control of the Salt Creek Road violates the spirit of that agreement, which is separate from the current lawsuit, he said.
"There's a broad interest here that the state and county are not respecting," said Obey.
A federal judge ordered Salt Creek closed to traffic in 1998 in a ruling in a lawsuit brought by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which pointed to damage caused by vehicles. But the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2000 ordered the court to reexamine the record. Then last June the Park Service closed the road because of damage.
The day the agency finalized the rule, San Juan County sued in federal court, alleging that Salt Creek qualified as a county road under an 1866 law known as RS2477, which granted broad rights-of-way across unreserved federal lands. The county and state claim the road was used as a public thoroughfare before 1962, when the Interior Department first reserved the land that became Canyonlands National Park in 1964.
The state's complaint says the county maintained and improved the Salt Creek Road for decades before the park was established. The state also claims the road was used from the 1920s to 1965 to trail cattle and haul supplies to established cowboy camps and was a jeep road for visitors and uranium prospectors since at least 1954.
"Claims like these are really at the heart of the RS2477 controversy," said McIntosh.
She pointed to the National Park Service's determination that off-highway vehicles were indeed damaging the stream and its surroundings.
Studies by Canyonlands National Park showed that jeep use was contaminating the stream with engine fluids and damaging vegetation.
"Obama could probably eat a baby in the Rose Garden on camera and his zombies would cheer."
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