The Bush administration is about to make it easier for state and local governments to gain control over roads and paths on federal lands, a move environmentalists and some lawmakers say will spur development in wilderness areas and national parks.
A rule to be published Thursday in the Federal Register creates a streamlined procedure to resolve title disputes over who controls rights of way along many roads, trails and rivers that cross federal lands, Interior Department officials said yesterday.
The policy allows the Bureau of Land Management to disclaim federal ownership "in a wide variety of property interests that may be in dispute," according to a BLM summary of the rule. It waives a 12-year limit on when applications can be filed and allows any entity, not just the owners of record, to ask the federal government to relinquish its interest in a parcel.
Environmental groups and their allies on Capitol Hill said the policy would make national parks and other public lands more vulnerable to development. And they criticized the timing of the announcement during the holiday season when most Americans' attention is elsewhere.
"Once again the administration is using stealth tactics to pay off special interests and do tangible damages to public resources," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said the rule "will let the administration enter into closed-door negotiations for paving our national parks, refuges and forests. It's another dilution of the 'public' part of 'public lands.' "
Federal officials denied such charges. They called the policy an administrative answer to complaints by state and local governments, especially in the western United States, that "clouded titles" have made it difficult to build and improve roads and impose new traffic patterns.
"The purpose of this rule is to allow county and state governments to try to work it out with the federal government so they don't have to sue us," said James Hughes, deputy director for policy and programs at the BLM, "or we don't have to go to the Congress to try and pass a special bill to fix up a boundary dispute or some property ownership dispute."
For instance, Hughes said, the rule may help quell an intergovernmental fuss over bad land surveys, or account for changes caused by river or beach erosion. Or it might clarify the status of land that was transferred to local control upon statehood, or later in a land exchange, but on which the federal government kept rights of way for water or power lines, he said.
"Now we're saying, 'Hey, we haven't used that [land]. So now we're going to disclaim any interest in keeping the right of way,' " Hughes said, offering an example of how the new policy is supposed to work.
The new rule could affect the tens of thousands of claims that states and counties have made to ownership of roads across the West based on a provision of the 1866 mining act known as Revised Statute 2477. The law, intended to give prospectors easy access to their claims, grants use of right of ways for highways over federal lands that are not reserved for public use.
Environmental groups say the most claims are in Utah and Alaska, where officials are seeking control over not just roads, but also over old mining trails, off-road vehicle trails and dry river bottoms.
"This isn't really about transportation," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This is about who is going to be able to control or protect federal public lands. . . . The timing of this is no coincidence. They're hoping that as few people as possible are going to notice what they are doing here. It's out-Grinching the Grinch on Christmas."
Tim Bristol, executive director for the Alaska Coalition in Juneau, said the new rule "could have huge impacts" on his state, where land claims snake all over the map.
"In Alaska, the governor and the Bush administration will really use this as a stalking horse for development and building roads across public lands," Bristol said. "We're going to have our hands full. We're going to need a lot of people out there to stick up for these places that we'd like to see remain wild and roadless."