Provoked by Garfield County's bulldozing of a mile of the Burr Trail in February, the federal government has gone to court for a sweeping ban against any further work on the road.
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court late Thursday, the U.S. Attorney's Office said the county's road work had "damaged and degraded" Capitol Reef National Park land and constituted "unlawful trespass."The 13-page suit asks the court to permanently stop the county from engaging in "any activity" on the Burr Trail without federal approval and seeks compensation to rehabilitate the damaged section.
Groups that have been resisting Garfield County's efforts to widen and pave the Burr Trail for more than a decade hailed the government action as a "reasonable and essential" response to "maverick" incursions into a national park.
"We believe this is central to ensure that the park is safe from further damage," said Terri Martin, spokeswoman and former Rocky Mountain director of the National Parks and Conservation Association.
"Garfield County went into the park and, despite National Park Service notifications that it was illegal, it bulldozed a 30-foot hillside and widened a section of the Burr Trail from 19 feet to 30 feet."
Named in the federal complaint are Garfield County; commissioners Louise Liston, D. Maloy Dodd and Clare Ramsay; and county engineer Brian B. Bremner.
Liston said Friday that commissioners would be meeting with County Attorney Wallace Lee to discuss the lawsuit, adding, "I have to be careful with what I say until then."
National Park Service officials also declined comment. Robert Van Belle, acting chief ranger of Capitol Reef, said he and all other park employees were under a "strict gag order."
The Burr Trail is an 8.4-mile unpaved section of a 66-mile road from Bullfrog to Boulder that winds through the southern portion of Capitol Reef National Park. Garfield County has long asserted a right to maintain the road and sought over the years to widen and pave the section within the park, incurring the wrath of environmentalists from around the country.
In 1993, the county submitted a proposal to improve and widen some portions of the trail. It was given permission to do some improvements exclusive of a one mile section that runs west from the eastern entrance of Capitol Reef.
According to the lawsuit, county officials originally agreed to work cooperatively with the National Park Service in conducting the planned maintenance work on the road but later broke off discussions.
On Feb. 9, park service roads foreman Robert Cox found that the county had staked the one-mile section of the road that had not been authorized for improvements.
"Mr. Cox informed Mr. Bremner that his proposal to widen the road and remove two hills as indicated by the stakes was unacceptable," the suit said.
On Feb. 12, county officials agreed to take no action. The next day, according to the suit, county crews entered the park and "without permission of the NPS, began bulldozing."
The government's lawyers said, "Harm to Capitol Reef National Park has already occurred and will continue to occur unless this court enjoins (Garfield County) from engaging in any construction or maintenance activities on the Burr Trail beyond that which the (Secretary of the Interior) authorizes."
Specifically, the government wants the courts to prohibit Garfield County from doing any unauthorized work on the Burr Trail and to order payment of the cost of restoring the area to its "original, natural condition."
According to Martin, state officials have tried to arrive at some solution to avoid federal legal action but talks have been futile. As recently as two days ago, federal officials had a four-hour meeting with Garfield County officials but reached no solution, she said.
"At some point, you have to say if talking and talking and talking doesn't do it, you have to go to court," Martin said. "The citizens of the United States expect the National Park Service to protect their parks against these types of maverick actions."