Within the next six weeks, San Juan County officials can drive into Salt Creek Canyon, a controversial closed-off road, to conduct research into whether the road should be closed permanently.

But they can do it only once, a federal judge ruled today.

U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball granted a six-week stay on Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's motion to keep Salt Creek Canyon off-limits to four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Canyonlands National Park officials agreed to allow the county the one-time access even though the road is closed to vehicles until park officials complete an environmental study.

SUWA also agreed to the deal. But SUWA attorney Stephen Bloch argued county officials could conduct their study on foot or horseback.

"I don't think it has to be done by vehicles," said Bloch. He noted that during the three years the road has been closed, the Park Service has been able to do its environmental study without the use of motorized vehicles.

Bloch asked that SUWA be notified when the county planned to drive into Salt Creek Canyon, suggesting that SUWA be allowed to go with them on foot or horseback.

State Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, who is also an attorney representing San Juan County, said they would have a "huge" issue with that.

Kimball refused SUWA's request.

This is the latest in a years-long legal dispute over Salt Creek Canyon.

In 1998, Kimball granted SUWA's request to close the route because motor vehicles were damaging the stream and its surroundings, a violation of federal law.

ORV users appealed the decision to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded the case back to Kimball for further review. Many ORV users hoped the appellate decision would reopen the canyon, but Canyonlands Superintendent Jerry Banta opted to keep it closed to study recovery efforts. The assessment is expected to be completed this fall.

In the meantime, San Juan County and the state of Utah have entered the legal fray, claiming that the road existed before the park and federal law gives them control of those historical thoroughfares. That law, known as RS2477, has been the center of numerous right-of-way disputes between counties and the federal government.

E-MAIL: donna@desnews.com