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Road claims baffle state, activists

When it comes to the road less traveled, you might be surprised at what some people consider a road.

Take Main Street Plaza. The only wheels there are on baby strollers. But the plaza is listed on a Salt Lake County map of "road" claims under a century-old mining law.

Angel's Landing is another curious "road" claim. The famous hiking trail in Zion National Park twists and turns its way well over 1,000 feet up the side of a cliff, and in some places it is so narrow that chains are anchored into the rock for hikers to hold onto.

Those are among what conservationists are calling outrageous land grabs by Utah counties trying to assert ownership claims over backcountry roads, most of which are nothing more than two tracks.

"The counties have gone berserk," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "They are claiming as many as 15,000 routes that have never been mapped, never been maintained and never been constructed."

But the Utah Attorney General's Office disputes conservationists' claims, which are based on maps obtained from the Bureau of Land Management, saying Main Street Plaza and Angel's Landing are not on the maps the state is considering.

"I've never heard of it," said John Boyden, the state's lead attorney handling so-called "RS2477" claims as part of pending litigation with the federal government. "People are defaming what we are doing. It's disturbing mischief."

Utah, as well as other states, are fighting the federal government over control of roads on federal lands. They base their claims on a provision in the 1866 mining act known as RS2477. The law, intended to give prospectors easy access to their claims, grants use of rights of way for roads and trails over federal lands that are not reserved for public use. It was repealed in 1976, but any road in place prior to that time would still qualify as a local right of way under the old law.

Several years ago, Utah notified the federal government that it plans to sue over ownership of such roads. It has yet to file a lawsuit, hoping to settle the dispute through negotiation. In doing so, the state asked counties to document access routes, located primarily on BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands, that existed prior to 1976 and therefore belong to the counties, not the federal government.

Boyden said they are just in the beginning stages of the process, what he calls "quality assurance" that involves reviewing the work to make sure it is being done correctly. Then it will determine whether the claims are valid.

"This is a joint effort" with Utah's 29 counties, Boyden said. "We have been in the mode of gathering data for four years."

'Bizarre claims'

Conservationists, however, are viewing some of the maps and are furious at what they are finding. They say the state and counties are seeking control over not only roads, but dry creek beds, off-highway vehicle routes and popular hiking trails accessible only by foot.

"I've been working on this issue for 10 years, and I've seen some bizarre claims," McIntosh said. "I was most surprised about Salt Lake County. It just sounds more and more like some monkey business going on at the state level."

Most disturbing to conservationists are the hiking trails listed as "highways" along the Wasatch Front's wilderness areas that they fear could make public lands more vulnerable to development.

"These beautiful areas will then be opened up to off-highway vehicles, road construction and snowmobiles," said Will McCarvill, conservation director of Wasatch Mountain Club. "I think there are a number of highway claims in existing wilderness areas that (the) Wasatch Mountain Club fought so hard to get in the late '70s."

If the federal government were to give in to the state's claim, then all the federal protections would be removed and wilderness lost, McCarvill said. "We are turning the clock back," he said.

McCarvill points to trails on a Salt Lake County map, dated two years ago, that listed RS2477 claims to hiking trails leading to canyons in the Lone Peak Wilderness Area. Also identified on the map is a "road" up Mount Olympus above the city's east bench.

Conservationists say the "roads" were never constructed and do not meet the definition of a highway.

"I've hiked all these trails, and they are substantially footpaths," McCarvill said. "They are barely a foot wide."

Mystery roads?

But some county officials are baffled, too. They say the roads they submitted are valid, but the maps coming out of the AG's office have additions they didn't make. And they aren't sure how or why those mystery roads suddenly appeared on a map that is part of the state's potential lawsuit.

For example, in 2000, the Salt Lake County Commission submitted a letter to the state highlighting 15 roads it wanted the state to claim under RS2477. When the map was released this week to the County Council, the number of county road claims had ballooned to hundreds.

Councilman Joe Hatch plans to ask the County Council to resubmit its original 15-road proposal, all of which are "rational" roads that primarily cross forest lands within the canyons. He may also ask the council to remove the county from any lawsuit the state might file.

"Clearly, having a road go to the top of Mount Olympus is ridiculous," Councilman Joe Hatch said. "To waste attorney's fees so we could build a road to the top is plain stupid."

Washington County leaders also dispute having included Angel's Landing or other hiking trails.

"We're just claiming all the roads that are pre-1976," Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said. "We wouldn't submit it if it wasn't a legitimate claim. We didn't include Angel's Landing. If it is on a map, then it's an error."

Washington County Public Works Director Ron Whitehead was equally surprised at what SUWA found on maps at the BLM office.

"The county hasn't submitted any roads near Angel's Landing," he said.

Adding to the confusion created by the apparent existence of conflicting road-claim maps is the fact that many counties and the state are keeping quiet about their such claims. Government officials have labeled their claims as "privileged information," a frustration among conservationists who want to be part of the process.

"Only in Utah does the state treat its highways as a state secret," McIntosh said.

That's the state's choice, Boyden said.

"Until we know which road we want to claim we like to have the privilege of doing our homework in private," he said.