Friday, July 10, 2009

Grand Staircase, Kane County, and RS 2477

Over the last few months I have taken trips into Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument on several of my favorite trails - Cottonwood Canyon, Skutumpah Road, and Smoky Mountain Road. These dirt roads represent the main arteries into areas where travel can be challenging in good weather, and impossible when heavy rain or snow falls. While it had been a couple of years since I had driven any of these roads, I was completely surprised at how much worse conditions had become since my last visit.

With the exception of Smoky Mountain Road, in the past these routes could be traveled in good weather by visitors with passenger cars thanks to Kane County employees who would periodically put their heavy equipment to use repairing frequent flood damage. But in the last two years conditions have deteriorated to the point where a high clearance vehicle and in some cases a 4 wheel drive are necessary, all because of a pissing contest between frustrated local officials and Monument managers.

When Grand Staircase - Escalante was created by Executive Order in the late 1990's out of a patchwork of state and BLM lands, locals were outraged by the perceived Federal "land grab". It was feared (rightfully so as it turns out) that areas used traditionally for generations to ranch, hunt, and recreate would be declared off-limits, and this did not sit well with residents.

This excerpt from testimony given to Congress on July 17th 2001 by Michael Noel, chairman of the Kane County Resource Development Committee sums up local sentiment best:

With the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in September of 1996, over 51% of the land in Kane County and almost 20% of the land in adjacent Garfield County was placed in special management categories that severely limit economic development in the counties. As result of this action the citizens of Kane and Garfield county have suffered economically. The size of the monument designation is staggering when compared to other national parks in the lower 48. It is 52 times larger than Bryce Canyon National Park, and 13 times larger than Zion National Park. It is one third larger than the entire Glen Canyon National Recreation Area including Lake Powell which contains over 2000 miles of shoreline. It is in fact 500 square miles larger than the entire state of Delaware. For the president to act unilaterally to set aside this vast area of public land without so much as a notification of the Governor of the State, the Congressional Delegation, county government or the local citizens can only be viewed as an irresponsible act taken for political purposes to evade the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and to overcome Congressional involvement.

Despite assurances from the new Monument managers that many historic activities would be allowed to continue, resentment continued to build and Monument officials fanned the flames with arbitrary and conflicting decisions.

The situation really began to deteriorate when Monument managers began closing roads that had been used traditionally by residents for generations, and further prohibiting OHV use on all roads. The County escalated tensions by ordering the removal of BLM signs prohibiting OHV use, then replacing them with their own designations allowing such use. A further aggravation was BLM insistence that the County continue to maintain and repair Monument roads at County expense while denying the County any say in how those roads were administered.

The disagreement became a court fight when County officials sued the federal government in an attempt to assert legal rights to control public rights-of-way under Revised Statute 2477. The County was denied in their motion by the 10th Circuit Court, but recent progress has been made on a different front - see the update at the end of this post. Meanwhile, the County understandably has discontinued all forms of maintenance on the disputed roads, leaving them to degrade further with each subsequent storm.

I'm not trying to espouse any particular viewpoint in this post except to say that this has gone on long enough. I fully support the effort to preserve and protect the ruggedly wild and beautiful area encompassed by GSENM. On the other hand, I am not in favor of locking land up into wilderness, for the simple reason that land so designated becomes useless to the vast majority of the taxpaying public. We all deserve the right to access and responsibly enjoy public land held in trust, although some regulation is necessary for those who would inadvertently love the land to death through overcrowding or inappropriate use.

The county has a legitimate gripe as well. The process by which land is designated a National Park or Monument needs to involve all stakeholders whose livelihoods will be greatly altered by changes in how the land is used. But those individuals who oppose the Monument also need to be realistic and accept that much of the land that was "taken" was already public land under management by the BLM. While some tracts of state land were lost to potential development, the federal government fully compensated the state for the loss with cash and alternate parcels of federal lands elsewhere in Utah.

No private land was appropriated with creation of GSENM, and many of the grazing rights and access roads in the area were retained. Yes, there are many places where OHV use is no longer allowed to protect fragile resources, and no mineral exploration or development will take place that might provide high paying jobs to county residents. In my opinion these are short term issues that pale in comparison to preserving a truly incredible landscape for future generations.

My point is this: You can't change the past. The Monument exists and has captured the attention of the public at large. Every year more and more citizens and visitors come to see a unique and valuable treasure that has equal standing with any National Park in the country. These public lands belong to everybody, and I really don't care if the county grades the road or if the BLM has to buy a fleet of graders and bulldozers to do the work.

September 12th, 2010 Update - The legal issue between the Federal government and Kane County has not yet been resolved, but recently Kane County won a victory in Federal Court by obtaining quiet title to a section of one of the roads in dispute - the Skutumpah Road. Check out the press release from Kane County Commissioners here.

The County expects it will eventually gain ownership through the quiet title process of many RS 2477 roads it has laid claim to, however some Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument roads may remain in dispute until the County and BLM officials can agree on a framework for cooperation.

May 2nd, 2011 Update - As mentioned in the earlier update, some progress has been made in resolving ownership and maintenance issues on not only Monument roads, but other disputed rights of way on BLM lands in Utah. There has not been a complete resolution on all fronts, but I am pleased to report that GSENM roads are once again seeing the occasional grader, and I am hopeful that this will remain so into the future.

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