ST. GEORGE – Washington County leaders are looking for witnesses who remember dirt roads in use before 1976 as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the federal government to protect historic roads in the county.
Anyone who remembers traveling backroads within Washington County for camping, fishing, hunting, rock hunting or other uses is urged to contact the county.
Open houses are scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday in St. George and Hurricane, respectively. Residents with backroad memories that might be relevant are asked to attend or contact county officials.
The effort is part of the long-running R.S. 2477 case in which counties are suing the government to maintain access to historic roads that cross federal land. Washington County is claiming 1139 miles of roads.
The county interviewed potential witnesses three years ago, Deputy Washington County Attorney Celeste Maloy said, and took depositions.
The witnesses at that time had to be at least 70 years old or in poor health, so there was an urgency to preserving their memories.
This time, witnesses have to be at least 60 years old or in poor health.
“Anybody who’s younger than 60 isn’t going to have meaningful memories far enough back,” Malloy said. “We’re trying to prove that roads existed for at least 10 years prior to 1976.”
Washington County will be allowed to take 10 depositions at this time with the possibility of more in the future, Maloy said.
The R.S. 2477 lawsuit has been underway since 1987. Most Utah counties — along with the state — are part of the lawsuit, which aims to settle the question of who has title to the mostly dirt roads, Maloy said.
The case originated with an 1877 mining act which stated that the public could establish roads across public lands and that title for the roads would pass to state and local governments. However, there was no provision for how the title would pass, Maloy said.
When the Federal Land Policy and Management Act was passed in 1976, the mining act was repealed, but the existing roads were left in place.
“So now, we’re trying to prove that roads existed prior to the passage of FLPMA in 1976,” Maloy said.
Because there are so many roads in dispute in so many Utah counties, Maloy said, most of the court cases have been sitting while two cases proceed to determine the law and what the process will be.
Meanwhile, members of the public with a clear memory of roads in use prior to 1976 are aging, and the county is anxious to record their memories.
What exactly is R.S. 2477?
Revised Statute 2477, Section 8 of the Mining Act of 1866, is a federal law that authorized construction of roads across federal public lands, according to Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office.
The law helped settle the West for 110 years. Residents of Utah, visitors, pioneers and settlers created and used thousands of roads across public lands for farming, ranching, hunting, recreating, mining and connecting communities. Residents continue to use many of these routes daily and some occasionally or seasonally.
Congress repealed R.S. 2477 in 1976 and enacted the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. This law departed from pro-development land policy and established a preference for retaining lands in federal ownership, according to the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office.
Section 701 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act preserved all R.S. 2477 rights-of-way that existed at the time it was passed and kept them open for public use:
“Nothing in this Act or any amendment made by this Act, shall be construed as terminating any valid right-of-way or other land use right or authorization existing on the date of approval of this Act.”
Today, the state and counties have to rely on R.S. 2477 to establish ownership of routes that have been used continuously for ten years prior to 1976.
The County Commission is hosting two open houses for individuals who used roads — especially dirt roads — located within the county prior to 1976. The county needs help from local residents to establish that the roads were used by the public during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Potential witnesses should be at least 60 years old, have memories of using local roads and be willing to share their memories.
Open houses are scheduled for:
- June 21 from 6-8 p.m at the Washington County Commission chambers, 197 E. Tabernacle in St. George
- June 23 from 6-8 p.m. at the Hurricane City Library, 36 South 300 West in Hurricane
- Those unable to attend but still wishing to offer their depositions may contact the following people:
- Washington County website
- Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office – R.S. 2477 information
- Utah R.S. 2477 court cases
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