Around the Nation
3:19 pm
Tue July 3, 2012

Roads Divide Locals And Environmentalists In Utah

Originally published on Tue July 3, 2012 6:06 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Utah, thousands of dirt roads and paths cross federally owned lands, and now they're at the center of a dispute. Some locals say the state should own and maintain the roads. They want to make sure they're accessible to ATVs and other off-road vehicles. Environmentalists insist the dirt roads should remain under federal protection. Whittney Evans of member station KUER in Salt Lake City heard from both sides firsthand.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Ray Bloxham and I are hiking up Mack Canyon Road in the Stansbury Mountains about 30 miles west of Salt Lake City. Bloxham argues this path we're on should not be considered a road.

RAY BLOXHAM: We'd advocate that, no, as its character, it impacts potentially the wilderness values of this area that it should just remain as a hiking trail.

EVANS: Bloxham is documenting the features of the trail, something he does regularly as the field director for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a group that advocates for the federal protection of public lands. Twenty-two counties in Utah have filed lawsuits together with the state against the federal government hoping to win back about 2,000 Civil War-era routes like Mack Canyon Road. Bloxham points to this watering trough and says even though this route may not be open to the general public, ranchers probably still have the ability to use a vehicle to maintain it and bring cattle in and out.

BLOXHAM: This is the type of stuff that we'll be looking for, for a purpose and need of a route.

EVANS: Bloxham says sections like this one could be considered a road, but as we hike further, he motions ahead to a group of steep jagged rocks that form kind of a staircase.

BLOXHAM: That's what they claim is a county highway, you know, not even passable - it's more - even a rugged vehicle.

EVANS: And so the question, if there's a road in the woods and no one can drive on it, is it still a road? Bloxham says no. Sixty-four-year-old Mike Anderson says yes. Anderson has spent his life hunting deer, trapping and prospecting in these mountains, and in the spring, he looks for wildflowers.

MIKE ANDERSON: It's amazing how many will blossom for just a few days and be gone. I'd hate to lose that privilege also.

EVANS: Attorneys for the state are using witnesses like Anderson to prove their case in court. Anderson is a lifelong resident of nearby Grantsville. We pull up to the trailhead and from the back of his pickup truck unload a four-wheeled off-road vehicle.

ANDERSON: OK. Come on, Willy.

EVANS: Anderson's dog, Willy, takes the backseat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

EVANS: As we drive up the mountain, Anderson says he fears losing access to these trails.

ANDERSON: They want to shut them down.

EVANS: So you're more afraid of what could happen in the future?

ANDERSON: Correct. Oh, I think they plan on shutting them down. I think there's a date set to do that.

EVANS: Every year since 1989, members of Congress have introduced legislation to protect these lands from off-road vehicles, but it's never passed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

EVANS: Anderson stops the ATV and turns off the vehicle. He says he can see that some places deserve protection.

ANDERSON: They should probably already be wilderness, instead of taking something that isn't, that's loaded with roads, that people have been enjoying and close them down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

EVANS: Opponents of the lawsuit say the state will spend millions of taxpayer dollars and many years fighting this fight. But as we head down from the mountain, Anderson says that argument doesn't deter him because without access to these roads...

ANDERSON: I wouldn't see the wildflowers. I wouldn't have seen those snap dragons down there, the hoary marmot that run in the - hid under that log. I'd have to go to the zoo to see that.

EVANS: And if the state loses in court and these lands do become off limits to vehicles, Anderson worries that means these experiences in nature would be off limits to him and his son. For NPR News, I'm Whittney Evans in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.