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Frequently Asked Questions: Roads in Wilderness

What’s so bad about more roads?

A loophole in the Civil War-era federal law, the mining Act of 1866, presents one of the most serious threats to western wild lands. The Wise Use movement, rural county commissioners, and others have resurrected R.S. 2477, a single line provision in the Mining Act, from its grave to claim that seldom-used jeep trails, foot paths, cow trails, and stream beds (including waterfalls) on public lands are actually "constructed highways." Under this reuse, rural counties can turn a federal wilderness into a freeway without any say by the BLM, the National Park Service, or the public.

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Why do opponents claim there are roads in proposed wilderness areas?

In certain areas it is possible for off-road vehicles to travel cross-country. Repeated vehicle travel across sensitive soils quickly creates a visible track. There is an attempt to claim, or "grandfather" such roads under R.S. 2477, and to prevent areas from being designated as wilderness because roads detract from their natural, unaltered state. However, unmaintained roads constructed for one-time prospecting use decades ago, and never-constructed jeep trails "maintained" only by infrequent passage of tire tread, do not constitute roads within the intent of the Wilderness Act. The Utah Wilderness Coalition proposal does not consider a route used by vehicles to be a road unless it was mechanically constructed and has been regularly maintained for travel by the public. "Ways by use’ will disappear over time if left alone.

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What is R.S. 2477?

Revised Statute 2477 (R.S. 2477) originally allowed settlers to develop the West by constructing roads across public lands. Congress repealed the law in 1976, recognizing its purpose had ended. In its place, Congress created the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). Under FLPMA, roads can still be constructed across public lands, but only after environmental studies are completed, and land managers determine the road is consistent with wildlife and wilderness values. But R.S. 2477 is not dead and buried.

In 1988, then-Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel boosted the "claim a road – stop a wilderness" effort by issuing a policy, which allowed forgotten jeep trails to be claimed as "highways" under R.S. 2477. Hodel’s policy clashed with existing law, but nonetheless handed wilderness haters a secret weapon to open vast new tracts to development. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt rescinded the Hodel policy in early 1997. Some members of Congress tried to reestablish the Hodel policy by attaching what environmentalists dubbed a "Pave the Parks" rider to the emergency flood relief bill of 1997. Following massive public outcry, and under threat of presidential veto, the rider was removed from the appropriations bill.

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What is an R.S. 2477 road claim?

An R.S. 2477 road claim, or assertion, is a claim that an abandoned jeep trail (cow path, streambed, etc.) is in fact a road. If not repudiated, the road will prevent an area from becoming a wilderness area, or at the very least will cause the wilderness to be "cherry stemmed" around the road so that the road is not included in the wilderness area. R.S. 2477 is not about state rights, access, or matters of the economy. It is simply a tool of people with an anti-wilderness agenda to foster their cause.

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What R.S. 2477 road claims have been made?

Rural counties in Utah have produced maps showing "highways" that can’t be traveled by cars. ORV organizations produced sample R.S. 2477 claims to show their members how to make their own R.S. 2477 road assertions. Over 5,000 individual roads have been claimed in Utah under this archaic statute. For example, in 1989, the BLM approved jeep-Chrysler’s request to use the Arch Canyon roadless area for a "jeep Jamboree." Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) successfully appealed the event. In retaliation, the agency turned around and used the Hodel policy to grant San Juan County a R.S. 2477 right-of-way (ROW) for the jeep trail which meanders back and forth across Arch Creek. The BLM then claimed that since the trail was now a county "road" that the agency was without discretion to stop the ORV event.

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What can be done about these false road claims?

SUWA and other member groups of the Utah Wilderness Coalition are engaged in a massive effort to map, photograph, and catalog every existing road and likely R.S. 2477 road claim in potential wilderness areas. This will provide evidence as to the viability of inaccessibility of current R.S. 2477 road claims. It will also provide a base from which future claims can be evaluated. Volunteer help is encouraged and appreciated. Combine road mapping with your next trip to Utah wilderness! Contact SUWA for additional information.

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