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HATCH SEEKS LEEWAY ON RIGHTS OF WAY

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Just to blast a warning shot at the Clinton administration, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced a resolution attacking its plan that could close many county byways, jeep trails and paths that crisscross federal land.

The resolution said the administration's plan is illegal and should be withdrawn. But the bill had no chance to pass since Hatch introduced it just before Congress adjourned for the year as it met in a lame-duck session.Aides said it was strictly to send a message to the administration that it faces a legislative fight with many Westerners unless it changes course and that more legislation will likely follow when the new Congress convenes next month.

The administration is proposing not to recognize local rights of way across federal lands unless counties can prove they existed before 1976 (when rules for granting roads changed), are used by vehicles (not just horses) and had construction that permanently altered terrain.

The proposal is currently in a public-comment period, which is due to expire Jan. 15.

Several officials have said the proposal would limit access to many rural areas by closing off some jeep and other trails.

Environmental groups have claimed it would stop counties from trying to pave such rights of way - which they feel is sometimes proposed only to try to stop proposed wilderness areas, which by law are not supposed to have roads.

That conflict comes because of "R.S. 2477," 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 It was repealed in 1976, but existing R.S. 2477 roads were allowed to continue.

About 5,000 of the 6,700 known R.S. 2477 claims of rights of way are in Utah, which environmentalists say is because of fights there over wilderness. Others could exist because no requirement had been made for registration of the rights of way.

Hatch's resolution was co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Alaska's senators - Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski. After Utah, Alaska has the highest number of R.S. 2477 disputes with the federal government.

Their resolution said the proposed rule would "conflict with existing law and congressional intent regarding the scope and future administration of those rights of way and impose an excessive burden on state and local governments to legitimize all right-of-way claims."

It called for the proposal to be withdrawn and for the administration to consult with congressional natural-resources committees before drafting another.

Hatch and other Westerners are expected to possibly introduce their own legislative remedy next year to resolve R.S. 2477 disputes, which could supersede administration proposals if enacted.