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The Interior Department has extended by 45 days the comment period on a proposal that could limit local control of thousands of byways, jeep trails and paths that crisscross federal land.

Four of Utah's five members of Congress - all but Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, who is somewhat supportive of the measure - had asked for a 90-day extension beyond the original Sept. 29 deadline. It will now extend to mid-November.The administration has proposed rules to limit recognition of local rights of way on federal land that may have been created under an 1866 law, "R.S. 2477," which was repealed in 1976.

Counties would have to prove that the roads existed before 1976 (when rules for granting rights to roads changed), are used by vehicles (not just horses or livestock) and had construction that permanently altered the terrain.

Environmental groups contend many counties are purporting that such "roads" exist and are under their control mostly to prevent creation of new wilderness areas, which by law must be roadless.

However, Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, R-Utah, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and Bill Orton, D-Utah, worry it could close important transportation routes in rural areas and is forcing counties - not the federal government - to prove their arguments.

Hatch said Thursday after the extension was announced, "This is critical to the basic infrastructure needs of Utah's rural communities, and having as much time as possible to provide comments to Secretary Babbitt on this fact has been of paramount concern."

Hatch praised Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt for the extension and said, "I hope those with an interest in this issue will take advantage of this extension and provide comments."

Utah and Alaska are the main battlegrounds on the R.S. 2477 issue. Virtually all disputed R.S. 2477 claims are in those two states.