Environmentalists are trying to stop state and local governments across the West that are claiming rights of way for roads through national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas and other public lands.
At a meeting held last week, the Colorado Wilderness Network spoke out against Moffat County and other government entities' efforts to claim rights of way on public lands that it feels should be left pristine.
These entities are using an 1866 mining law known as Revised Statute 2477 to claiming rights of way for the possibility of future development through these wild places. R.S. 2477 grants the right of way for the construction of highways over public land not reserved for public uses.
Moffat County officials say they are not claiming the rights of way to immediately build roads, though they would have that option. They say they are claiming the roads for the possibility of developing the land or for future exploration of energy sources such as natural gas.
If the county does not claim an area that is later designated as a wilderness area, the county would lose all rights to develop it, use its natural resources or use motorized vehicles on the land.
Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said the county's goal in approving the rights of way was simply to provide it with the option of using or developing the land in the future. With 70 percent of Moffat County's funding coming from the energy companies using its natural resources, the county could not afford to give up its economic mainstay, she said.
"It's an option that could be there, but if you take it away, you take away the economic viability," Raftopoulos said. "As a county, we understand that we have to do that in a reasonable and environmentally friendly way. Closing that option off is not responsible."
Though Congress repealed R.S. 2477 in 1976, it provided a loophole by saying if local governments can show that a "highway" was constructed prior to 1976, or prior to the land being reserved for public uses, whichever came first, the local government can allege that it has a right of way to use that highway.
Moffat County and some other entities are using the term "highway" loosely, said Jennifer Seidenberg, Northwest field organizer for the Colorado Wilderness Network, the environmental group trying to stop governing entities from using the statute, which the CWN calls "a monumental threat to our natural treasures."
At a press conference Friday, Seidenberg showed a map of Moffat County's proposed rights of way that was generated by the county using old land grant maps, aerial photographs and resident testimonials. She also showed a video in which representatives of the CWN walked the ground in question and showed that many of the rights of way where "highways" were supposedly constructed before 1976 appeared to be cattle and game trails or dried creek beds.
The map indicates Moffat County is claiming more than 2,000 miles of rights of way through the county, many of which are hiking trails through Dinosaur National Monument, which Seidenberg said could be devastating.
"By supporting this, you're handing over these public lands to private or state entities," Seidenberg said. "These treasures that should be protected for our children could be damaged permanently."
Raftopoulos said Moffat County has every intension of keeping the lands pristine, and she thinks environmentalists are getting the wrong idea.
The CWN and its supporters are charging that Gov. Bill Owens is supporting this statute to turn public lands over to oil and gas industries for energy exploration. Kristen Hubbell, a spokeswoman for Owens, told the Fort Collins Coloradoan on Thursday that environmental groups were misrepresenting Owens' stance and that the governor simply want the issue on the table for discussion.