The U.S. District Court in Utah has concluded proceedings and approved a settlement of a lawsuit involving three claimed highway rights-of-way on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administered public land adjacent to and within the Deep Creek Mountains Wilderness Study Area (WSA). The court approved the settlement between the United States, the state of Utah and Juab County, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club.
Under the settlement, negotiated by the Justice Department on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the BLM, public highway rights-of-way are recognized in those segments of the three claimed routes for which evidence of historic use satisfies the requirements of R.S. 2477. R.S. 2477 is a provision enacted by Congress in 1866 that provided for public access across public lands by granting rights-of-way for the construction of highways. R.S. 2477 was repealed in 1976, but such rights-of-way that were established before its repeal are considered to be valid existing rights.
The terms of the settlement state that the roads shall not be developed, widened or otherwise enlarged, although they may be repaired if necessary. In addition, the public may once again access the clearing known as Camp Ethel at the end of the Granite Canyon Road. The parties also agreed that vehicle travel on some segments of the roads is subject to seasonal restrictions, and that Juab County would adopt an ordinance requiring vehicles to stay on the roads and not travel past their ending points, which the County passed in February 2013, and for the County to help patrol the roads on high-use weekends.
BLM has agreed to conduct monitoring concerning water quality in Granite Canyon Creek and other resources, and the County and BLM will continue to work together in balancing needs for public access and protection of the WSA and its resources. The State and Juab County have agreed not to claim other R.S. 2477 rights-of-way in the WSA and will limit their claims to rights-of-way on federal lands adjoining the WSA to twelve designated routes.
“The agreement is the first to settle longstanding claims by the state and counties of Utah for highway rights-of-way on federal lands, and does so in an environmentally sound and responsible manner,” said Robert G. Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “This landmark settlement will recognize three historic rights-of-way claimed by Utah and Juab County that will remain in their primitive, undeveloped condition, while providing ample protection for the unique environment of the Deep Creek Mountains Wilderness Study Area.”
“I am very pleased that all the parties involved were able to work together to resolve this issue and settle this lawsuit in a way that promotes public interests and protects the resources on our public lands,” said Juan Palma, BLM Utah State Director. “This settlement serves as a tangible reminder that certain R.S. 2477 issues can be resolved through good-faith negotiations and cooperation.”
The Deep Creek Mountains WSA, spread across 68,910 acres in Tooele and Juab Counties, is an extremely remote location known for its combination of biological and geological wonders. Stretching 32 miles in length and 15 miles at its widest point, the area is considered an “island” ecosystem due to its distance from inhabited areas. It is home to alpine meadows, evergreen and aspen forests, and habitats for the peregrine falcon and six other sensitive bird species. Some of the nine perennial streams that run through the WSA are populated by a pure strain of the Bonneville cutthroat trout, a state sensitive species. It also features impressive geological formations such as quartzite cliffs.
The State and Juab County filed the lawsuit in 2005 pursuant to the federal Quiet Title Act, and claimed that they held public highway rights-of-way, under R.S. 2477, to segments of three primitive roads known as the Trout Creek Road, Toms Creek Road and Granite Canyon Road.
The three environmental groups were allowed to intervene as defendants in the lawsuit. The parties engaged in long-term, good faith negotiations that resulted in the detailed and comprehensive settlement that has now been approved by the Federal District Court, and which dismisses the lawsuit.
The settlement underscores that representatives of the federal government, the State of Utah and its counties, and the environmental community can, through good-faith negotiations, resolve R.S. 2477 claims. This is especially important given that in the last few years, the State and counties across Utah have filed over 25 similar Quiet Title Act lawsuits asserting claims for approximately 12,000 R.S. 2477 rights-of-way on federal public lands across the State.