WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Wednesday said the agreement reached between the Interior Department and the state of Utah on the ownership of roads on public lands amounted to a “back room” deal that skirts the law, was reached without the benefit of public scrutiny, and therefore is not in the public’s best interest.
The Interior Department announced that it had reached an agreement with Utah to resolve disputes over existing rights of way claims on federal land. The deal involved Revised Statute 2477, a law passed in 1866 at a time when the West was first being settled, and which gave states rights of way over federal lands for the purpose of highway construction. It was repealed in 1976, but valid existing claims continue to be recognized. Utah has made over 10,000 claims.
“I’m afraid some people are using a 137-year-old law – enacted at a time when the West was primarily wilderness and repealed over 20 years ago – to serve narrow interests,” Lieberman said. “What is presented as a common-sense agreement is actually a circumvention of the spirit of the law.”
Existing law prohibits the department from issuing rules regarding the recognition of existing claims without Congressional approval. To get around those requirements, the Department Wednesday issued a so-called Memorandum of Understanding, which outlines the responsibilities of both the state and the department, but avoids public scrutiny.
“The impact of the agreement,” Lieberman said, “will be to threaten priceless natural resources in the wilds of Utah, including the Grand Staircase National Monument. Further, the agreement sets an undesirable precedent that other states are likely to follow, placing millions of acres of additional public lands in danger of development.”