Utah Sues Feds over Road Closures

Utah Sues Feds over Road Closures
December 29, 2011

James M. Taylor

James M. Taylor is senior fellow for environment and energy policy at The Heartland Institute, and... (read full bio)

Utah state and county officials are suing the federal government, claiming the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have improperly claimed ownership of hundreds of road segments. The state and county officials claim the feds have, in furtherance of controversial environmental programs, shut down travel on roads that have been used by locals for decades.

Without access to the roads, state and county officials say, many residents no longer have access to their homes or nearby communities.

Roads Vital to Locals
“Plaintiff’s public highways serve the vital function of linking communities,” Kane County officials stated in their legal brief. “Due to the rugged terrain in Kane County, each of the roads claimed herein is incredibly important because there is rarely an alternate route.”

The federal government owns 80 percent of the land in Kane County, and many of the roads lie in lands recently set aside for environmental protection as part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) emphasized the federal government is altering historic land use and imposing unprecedented burdens on local communities.

“The BLM has completely ignored local and state requests for local control of vital roads within the public lands, instead choosing to unilaterally close roads and restrict access enjoyed by Utahns for decades, contrary to the protections with [the Federal Land Policy and Management Act] of 1976,” said Herbert in a press statement. “We will now bring the historical evidence to court, and ask that the access rights and travel needs of Utahns be upheld in the face of federal indifference.  Ownership is the only tool that allows local and state governments to have a legitimate say in the management of access to public lands.”

“We have tried for years to resolve these issues without litigation, but these two lawsuits represent the failure of the federal government to recognize roads built and used by Utahns for decades,” explained Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow. “We will continue to take action to protect the rights of Utah citizens.”

“We want to permit historical use,” Kane County Commissioner Dirk Clayson told the Southern Utah News.

More Suits May Follow
Approximately 20 other Utah counties are considering filing additional claims against the federal government. State and county officials in several other states are considering filing similar suits.

“Many Americans, particularly in the eastern United States, are not aware that Western communities simply want the federal government to leave them alone,” said Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News. “State and county officials can protect environmentally sensitive lands just as effectively as the federal government. Importantly, state and local officials have a better understanding of local lands and the legitimate needs of local residents.”

“The Utah lawsuits show that Westerners have reached a tipping point regarding Washington, DC telling them how they can and cannot access their land,” Lehr added. “Many more states and local communities will almost certainly file their own suits in the months ahead.”

James M. Taylor (jtaylor@heartland.org) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

James M. Taylor

James M. Taylor is senior fellow for environment and energy policy at The Heartland Institute, and... (read full bio)