February 2012

Following the best route

An unusual but positive thing happened Jan. 23 at the regular meeting of the Montezuma County commissioners. The board, the Forest Service, and a private landowner all agreed on what to do about a historic road.

Forest Road 567 in the Mancos area, by some accounts, would qualify as an RS 2477 right-of-way under the 1866 statute that provided for “highways” across public lands. (They weren’t talking interstates in those days!) The road apparently isn’t much of a road; it’s rugged and isn’t maintained in winter. But it provides four-wheel-drive access to public lands and to the Red Arrow Mine, whose owner hopes to get the mine producing again.

There was a potentially explosive dispute between the mine owner and the Forest Service over whether he had to follow agency requirements to maintain winter access along that road. The county could have spent a great deal of time and money going to court to try to verify the RS 2477 claim to gain access that way. Instead, the board discussed the road with the Forest Service, and agency officials said, in effect: “You want it? We’ll give it to you.” Now the wheels are in motion for the Forest Service to provide a perpetual easement to the county along that route.

This may not entirely satisfy people who were hoping to have the county win an RS 2477 claim in the courts, but it’s a workable and practical solution.

The Montezuma County commissioners and their attorney have kept to an admirably sane course throughout the furor over motorized access on local public lands that has raged over the past couple of years. Pressured by many folks to, in effect, go to war against the Forest Service, they have instead listened patiently to citizens’ concerns about motorized access and made every effort to find common-sense answers that would not entangle the county in pointless litigation or bellicose posturing.

They appointed a public-lands commission to research the history of old roads in the area. They met numerous times with public-lands managers to hash out issues such as road closures and motorized retrieval of big game in hunting season. Instead of indulging in pointless talk about arresting forest officials, they advocated for their position firmly but civilly.

And their efforts apparently helped make a difference, because the Dolores Public Lands Office eventually proposed a travel-management plan for the Boggy- Glade area northwest of Dolores that was less restrictive than the one originally planned — and even took the unusual step of allowing motorized game retrieval. That plan has not received final approval, and we have doubts about how well it will work on the ground, but it demonstrates both the effectiveness of the counties’ voices (both Montezuma and Dolores) and the willingness of the Forest Service to compromise.

There will continue to be tensions between federal land agencies and counties as long as there are public lands in the West. Some counties have chosen to fight protracted battles over road access in order to establish precedent and prove a point. For instance, San Juan County, Utah, has spent more than $1 million trying to establish a claim to just one route, and there is no end in sight yet to that quest. That’s their prerogative, and their judgment as to whether the fight is worth it. But Montezuma County doesn’t have the money to pour into such an effort.

So we’re glad that here at home, the commissioners are focused on the concrete rather than the hypothetical, and on achieving results rather than fighting for fighting’s sake.