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Bush Opens Way for Counties and States to Claim Wilderness Roads

Policy could allow vehicles into vast areas of wilderness, some in national parks. Critics fear harm by miners, off-roaders and others.

January 21, 2003|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE — From most perspectives, this windblown landscape is the definition of off the beaten path. Sandy hummocks give way to flinty mountain ranges and a seemingly impassable expanse that is home to herds of bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and a universe of heat-loving plants.

But others see the preserve's 1.6 million acres of creosote bushes and ribbed desert washes and envision thousands of miles of roads. Ditto for Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, along with wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada and along California's rugged northern coast.

That vision -- of unfettered motorized access to remote country that has for decades been the province of wild animals and a few hardy backpacking humans -- is a lot closer to reality thanks to a Bush administration policy quietly adopted earlier this month.

Bowing to long-standing pressure from several Western states and counties, the Interior Department's new policy gives local decision-makers the opportunity to lay claim to tens of thousands of miles of rights of way across federal land. Ultimately, it will be up to the Interior Department to determine the validity of the claims.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 604 words Type of Material: Correction
Mojave map -- A map accompanying a Jan. 21 California section article on roads in the Mojave National Preserve improperly placed the town of Kelso five miles south of its actual location.

Enacted through a rules change, the new policy has the potential to open millions of acres of land in national parks and federally designated wilderness areas to motorized transportation. By providing access to isolated holdings, it could also open remote country to drilling for oil and gas and other commercial development.

The policy does not automatically convey rights of way to local jurisdictions. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management must rule on the validity of each claim. The agency is virtually certain to face legal challenges to any rights of way granted through parks or wilderness areas where motorized transportation is now prohibited.

Nonetheless, wilderness advocates have cause for alarm. The Bush administration has made its preference clear for granting state and local authorities increasing say in the way federal lands are used.

Deputy Interior Secretary Steve Griles recently told a group of Alaska mining and energy executives that the administration would soon approve rights-of-way claims from that state.

Alaska, Utah and other states, as well as a handful of Southern California counties, are asserting the rights-of-way claims under a little-known 1866 law titled RS 2477, which was designed to encourage the development of the rural West. The law was repealed in 1976, but states and counties were still able to make claims if the roads existed before 1976.

Wagon Trails

In many cases, what authorities are claiming as roads amount to little more than wagon tracks, livestock paths and even dogsled routes in Alaska. But with muscular, four-wheel-drive vehicles, even the most primitive routes can allow access to untrammeled places.

The issue heated up during the 1990s as off-road vehicle enthusiasts, hunters, ranchers and mining and energy interests became increasingly concerned about the Clinton administration's efforts to curtail road building in national forests, restrict mining near national parks and create parks and monuments.

The new policy does not take effect until Feb. 5, but already its implications are being felt across the West.

In California, San Bernardino County has indicated its intent to claim nearly 5,000 miles of rights of way -- more than twice the total mileage of maintained roads in the entire county. The county is pressing claims to 2,567 miles of roads within the Mojave National Preserve, acting at the behest of off-road enthusiasts, ranchers and mining interests.

Riverside and other counties have documented claims to rights of way in Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and 21 wilderness areas in the Southern California desert.

Counties such as San Bernardino say they are simply securing legitimate claims that they may or may not intend to exercise.

"These are blanket assertions," said Brad Mitzelfelt, chief of staff for San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus. "It's a matter of defending local prerogatives and local rights. If you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to protect rights that you may lose forever, you've got to take it."

Park and wilderness advocates fear it will disrupt wildlife habitat, turning 19th century wagon ruts into paved roadways, allowing cars and their pollution into unspoiled places.

"We're concerned about highways, but in a way that's just the tip of the iceberg," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which has been monitoring RS 2477 claims for more than a decade.

McIntosh said one of the right-of-way claims in Utah leads down a waterfall and another through a 4-foot-wide slot canyon.

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