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Controversial Road Rule Agreement Expands Loophole to Public Lands Giveaway

Interior Department, Utah Agreement Undercuts Current Law, Threatens 10 Million Acres, and Cuts Out Public

April 9, 2003

Contact Info:
David Slater, The Wilderness Society, 202-429-8441
Kathryn Seck, Campaign for America’s Wilderness, 202-266-0436
Annie Strickler, Sierra Club, 202-675-2384
Heidi McIntosh, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-541-5833
Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, 303-623-9466

Washington, DC -- A coalition of conservation groups strongly criticized a new agreement between the Interior Department and the state of Utah over a controversial road rule that provides a loophole for giving away public lands in the state of Utah and across the west to special interests. More than two years of secret, closed-door negotiations between the State of Utah and the Department of Interior have resulted in a memorandum of understanding establishing a process by which road rights-of-ways will be recognized on federal lands using a loophole – known as RS 2477 – in an outdated mining law.

“This agreement may look harmless on the surface, but there is a bulldozer behind the fine print,” said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, noting that it leaves unprotected nearly 6 million acres of sensitive, roadless Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and about 4 million acres of Forest Service roadless lands – an area roughly the size of the states of Massachusetts and New Jersey combined.

“While being touted as a compromise, the process set forth in the agreement would actually roll back existing law and weaken the criteria the BLM has used to evaluate claims,” McIntosh said. “In reality, the Governor is aiming to use this agreement as a tool to prevent any proposed wilderness areas from receiving permanent protection. Ultimately, this is part of a sweeping attack on America’s last remaining wilderness lands and comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the state of Utah attacking the BLM’s authority to identify and protect wilderness lands.”

Less than three weeks ago, State of Utah filed a complaint in federal court that seeks to make it impossible for the BLM to ever again recommend areas for wilderness protection, or even examine the agency’s lands for wilderness character. The BLM manages more federal public lands than any other agency.

The agreement also:

  • provides for no public involvement until after BLM has made a decision to turn routes on public lands over to states;

  • will permit Utah to turn jeep tracks into paved highways after simply notifying the BLM and getting the agency’s approval, again without public involvement;

  • does not require any look at the environmental impacts of the wholesale give-away of routes;

  • will use the Bush administration’s new, controversial, and illegal ‘disclaimer rule’ to ease the public land give-away;

  • provides no real protection for National Parks, Wildlife Refuges or Wilderness areas, since the state of Utah, counties, and all-terrain vehicle groups are free to pursue these claims in federal court;

  • apparently will use loosen standards that could permit states to allege that cow paths and foot trails are “constructed highways” and thus subject to give away; and

  • invites other states and counties to apply for similar agreements.

“This agreement will make it easy for the state of Utah to wreck the wilderness future of the state, while leaving the door open for others to go after the National Parks, Wildlife Refuges and existing wilderness later. There’s no real protection here for anything,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice. “America’s public lands will be given away with no meaningful public involvement, and no environmental review. And Secretary Norton has put out the welcome mat for other states to cut the same bad deal.”

The state of Utah has a history of seeking rampant RS 2477 claims throughout the state. Just last month, Governor Leavitt signed a bill into law intended to give him the ultimate power to determine RS 2477 claims in the state. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) released today grew out of a lawsuit threatened by Governor Leavitt in June of 2000. At that time, the state sought to attain recognition of more than 100,000 miles of road claims.

“If the Interior Department and the state had truly tried to work out a cooperative agreement that acknowledges only non-controversial, regularly maintained roads, the process and result would have been far different,” said Pam Eaton, the Wilderness Society’s Four Corners Regional Director. “Instead, they have emerged from three years of closed-door meetings with a flawed MOU that doesn’t stand up to a close reading and actually weakens protections for public lands.”

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