Western Republican senators want the Interior Department to grant another two-month extension for comments about its plans on how to decide which local byways, jeep trails and paths that now crisscross federal land should survive.
The department already provided one 60-day extension, which will expire Jan. 15.That was half the 120 days extra that Westerners wanted originally, so they again asked for the extra 60 days in a letter last week spearheaded by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and signed by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and five other Western GOP senators.
They wrote that the extra time is needed because "our state legislatures would like the opportunity to review the proposed rules." The Utah Legislature does not convene until the day after the current comment period ends.
The letter also said an Alaska lawsuit about such roads is about to be heard by the 9th Circuit federal Court of Appeals and any final rules should wait for its decision and guidance.
Also, it said many "industries are just becoming aware of the tremendous scope of the proposed rules. . . . Title companies and banks are very concerned about impacts on liability caused by the rules' upset of long-settled expectations."
The Clinton administration is proposing not to recognize local rights of way across federal lands unless counties can prove they existed before 1976, are used by vehicles (not just horses) and had construction that permanently altered terrain.
Several officials have said that would limit access to many rural areas.
But environmental groups have said it would stop counties from trying to pave such rights of way - which they feel are sometimes proposed only to try to stop proposed wilderness areas, which by law are not supposed to have roads.
That conflict comes because of "RS2477," an 1866 law that allowed counties and others to build roads on public lands not set aside for other purposes. It was repealed in 1976, but existing RS2477 roads were allowed to continue.
About 5,000 of the 6,700 known RS2477 claims of rights-of-way are in Utah, which environmentalists say is because of fights over wilderness. Others could exist, because no requirement had been made for registration of the rights of way.
Hatch also sent a separate, 11-page letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt outlining his objections to the proposed rules.
He said they would require so much paperwork to prove a right-of-way claim "that it would result in the loss of rights by counties and local governments whose resources are insufficient to meet this demand."
Hatch added, "The regulations are clearly biased against the claimant, requiring information to validate a claim that may be either impossible to obtain or that never existed in the first place."
Also, "The department assumes that all claims are not valid and places the burden of proof on the claimant. . . . In my opinion, property rights are being deprived without due process."