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Sunday, May 26, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Scenic Utah county whomps Uncle Sam

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — Kane County, a wild and scenic tourist Mecca in southern Utah, protests that the federal government sued it for trespass, simply because it tried to maintain roads in its 2.5 million acres - work it is forced to do because federal agencies refuse to do it. The county says the feds "caused a serious public safety risk" by refusing to "maintain, repair or clear snow from these roads" - and by suing the county for doing it.
Kane County responded by suing the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management in Federal Court.
The giant county borders Zion National Park and contains some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, including Glen Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The county seat is Kanab.
Kane County claims the Department of Interior (DOI) and BLM "refuse to maintain, repair or clear snow" from its back roads and have "sued Kane County for trespass, and has issued trespass citations, when Kane County maintained and graded its roads beyond the disturbed width."
The county says it has a long history of working with federal land managers on its roads.
"Without any change in the law, the DOI and its agencies have recently engaged in an aggressive effort to impair or entirely deprive Kane County and the public of their vested rights-of-way, and to avoid DOI's duty to manage public lands subject to valid existing rights. DOI's actions have recently sparked numerous public highway cases across the Western states," the complaint states.
"A BLM official has admitted that BLM is responsible (liable) for the roads until Kane County's title is confirmed, but BLM will not maintain them, nor will it acknowledge Kane County's title. Several members of the public have slid off washboarded sections of road, and have filed claims for vehicle damage caused by these unmaintained and rutted roads. And BLM will not repair the roads when they wash out. BLM has ignored the widespread public safety hazards on these roads," according to the complaint.
Only about 10 percent of Kane County land is privately owned; more than 83 percent of it is owned by the federal government.
"These roads have long served the common good in providing a safe, efficient transportation system within Kane County. Kane County's transportation system connects to roads in the State of Arizona and roads in other counties within Utah. Some of the roads in this action predate Utah's statehood in 1896. Kane County's public highways serve the vital function of linking communities' private land, and SITLA land, [State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration] and were historically established and constructed where necessary to facilitate settlement, commerce, and general public access. Due to the rugged terrain in Kane County, the roads claimed herein are incredibly important because there are rarely alternative routes."
Nonetheless, a Department of Interior solicitor "testified that Kane County cannot own or maintain a right-of-way until the DOI decides that Kane County owns a right-of-way, or a court confirms Kane County's title," the complaint states.
"The DOI and BLM have now caused a serious public safety risk. The DOI prevailed in court on its claim that each of the roads in this case is presumptively a federal road until Kane County adjudicates its title. However, the DOI and BLM now refuse to maintain, repair or clear snow from these roads. ...
"The DOI and BLM stated that the door is wide open for Kane County to come to court to prove its claims and establish its rights. The BLM's State Director recently stated that it is time to have Kane County's rights-of-way decided."
Well and good, the county says. It demands "an order confirming its rights-of-way, easements and rights-of-entry to access, use and maintain the rights-of-way" to 49 roads. The county is represented by Shawn Welch with Holme Roberts & Owen.

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