Sierra Magazine

Lay of the Land

Highway Robbery

Make-believe roads threaten real wilderness

Residents of Salt Lake City’s northern neighborhoods enjoy a mighty big backyard: the blond rolling hills of City Creek Canyon, thousands of acres that are a water source for the metropolitan area. Morning strollers and dog-walkers ambling around its grassy slopes and juniper woodlands would never guess that the entire preserve is covered with "highways." At least, that’s what the state of Utah and the Bush administration call them.

In April, Utah governor Mike Leavitt and Interior Department secretary Gale Norton signed an agreement allowing the state to claim dusty hiking trails, overgrown cow-paths, jeep tracks, and even arid riverbeds on federal lands as roads under Revised Statute 2477, an obscure law passed in 1866. Congress repealed the law in 1976, but preserved rights to existing claims, a loophole that Norton bulldozed wider in December.

The 10,000 potential highway claims already identified by the state of Utah could disqualify the 9 million rugged acres that conservationists seek to have designated as wilderness–and could bring development and motorized travel across public lands. "You have to be a sleuth to find these mystery ‘roads,’" says Mark Clemens, the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter coordinator. "But once the federal government cedes control, off-road vehicles are going to go everywhere."

Environmentalists expect the threat to spread quickly. The state of Alaska has identified over 600 routes, including some through Denali and Wrangell—St. Elias National Parks, and counties in California and Colorado have expressed interest in asserting their own rights-of-way on federal land. The law was meant to allow miners access to their claims, says Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "It didn’t mean we should give away the West to anyone who happens to drive across it." –Jennifer Hattam

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