The Interior Department yesterday issued rules to make it easier for western states and local governments to claim rights of way on hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands, including areas now off-limits to roads, mining and other commercial activity.
Interior officials said the rules, published in the Federal Registry, are essential to clearing up scores of long-standing land ownership controversies between the federal government and state and local jurisdictions that otherwise would entail costly litigation.
"This will help our federal land managers more clearly define who owns what and how [the land] can be used," said Patricia E. Morrison, deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management. "It goes to the heart of our land management planning."
But environmental groups said the rules changes would make it easier for state and local jurisdictions to convert dirt tracks and wash bottoms into roads, which could lead to development harmful to wilderness areas and national parks.
"This allows special interests to punch highways into our most precious parks and refuges along long-abandoned mining trails, cattle paths and streams," said Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
For years, western state and local governments have feuded with the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management over rights of way. In southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for example, environmental groups say counties ignored the area's protected status in 1996 and scraped roads out of obscure trails.
The state of Alaska has identified 24 routes in Denali National Park and Preserve that it contends may be valid state rights of way. In California, an effort by San Bernardino County to survey specific routes and map claims -- including wagon roads, trails and horse and footpaths -- has resulted in 2,567 miles of road claims in the Mojave National Preserve.
The Interior Department intends to use the new rules essentially to revive a provision of the 1866 mining act known as Revised Statute 2477, meant to encourage western settlement. Congress repealed the law in 1976 when it passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
The old statute had granted states and local governments the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands "not specifically reserved for public uses," but in many cases the states never received a deed to the land.
The new rules will facilitate the filing of claims by eliminating a 12-year statute of limitation on such claims, by allowing "entities" other than the owner of record to file claims, and by giving federal agencies other than the Bureau of Land Management greater say in the disposition of the land.