WASHINGTON – In an ongoing effort to oversee protection of the nation’s undeveloped public lands, Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Wednesday asked the Department of the Interior to release documents regarding rights of way claims for highways on federal lands in Utah. Following news stories indicating the Administration is considering dropping federal claims to some roads within the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Lieberman called on DOI Secretary Gale Norton to make public field surveys and investigations that were compiled during the last Administration.
“If the federal government relinquishes ownership to roads through public lands, those roads will become open to development. “The disclosure of this information will serve two purposes,” Lieberman wrote. “First, it will facilitate public participation in the process. Second, disclosure will assist in the identification for the public and Congress of the claims which are valid and those which do not meet the legal requirements….”
At issue is implementation of Revised Statute 2477, an 1866 law granting rights of way over public lands for highway construction. Rights of way were freely granted at a time when the government was encouraging settlement of the West. R.S. 2477 was repealed in 1976 when Congress established a modern system for public land management. The old law, however, remains in effect for rights of way established before 1976. Because of the Interior Department’s secrecy, we don’t know how many claims are currently pending or expected , who has made the claims, where the claims are located, and whether or not they are valid. In 1993, approximately 5,000 right of way claims in Utah were pending before the Bureau of Land Management. During the Clinton Administration, the BLM conducted field examinations of R.S. 2477 claims in Utah, and Lieberman said it was “it is very likely” that surveys were conducted on some of the claims the Interior Department is now thinking of surrendering. “What is at stake is whether, by manipulating the standards for recognizing rights-of-way claims made under a repealed 1866 statute, the Department of the Interior effectively gives broad permission for the development of federal land – even when the claims themselves may be flimsy and the damage to the environment caused by recognition of the claims profound,” wrote Lieberman. In July 2003, Lieberman asked Norton to share with the public the Department’s behind-the-scenes activities regarding highway construction through millions of acres of federal land, including wilderness lands. The Department declined to answer many of his questions. “The decisions which you will be making to disclaim ownership interests in Federal lands are very serious, with potentially grave consequences. Thus it is vital that you take all appropriate steps to insure appropriate stewardship of the public’s lands and confidence in your decisions.” Following is a copy of the letter: December 4, 2003 The Honorable Gale Norton Secretary U.S. Department of the Interior 1849 C Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20240 Dear Secretary Norton: I am writing regarding recent developments relating to the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) recognition of claims for rights-of-way for highways on federal public land under Revised Statute 2477 (RS 2477) and to request that you promptly disclose information relevant to these claims. As you know, I expressed to you my serious concerns about DOI’s stewardship of the nation’s public lands in the handling of such claims in a July 2, 2003 letter. What is at stake is whether, by manipulating the standards for recognizing rights-of-way claims made under a repealed 1866 statute, the Department of the Interior effectively gives broad permission for the development of federal land – even when the claims themselves may be flimsy and the damage to the environment caused by recognition of the claims profound. Recent news reports indicate that DOI is considering dropping federal ownership claims to some roads within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah (“the Monument”), a monument created by Executive Order to protect a unique combination of archaeologic, historic, paleontologic and biologic resources which make up one of the scenic wonders of the West. In addition, reportedly the State of Utah is beginning to present claims under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which was privately negotiated between you and the Governor of Utah and signed on April 4, 2003. According to the news reports, you believe that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will not need to conduct extensive ground surveys to verify the claims.1 In 1993, there were approximately 5,000 RS 2477 claims for rights-of-way on public lands in Utah pending at the BLM.2 I understand that during the last Administration, the Utah BLM State Office staff undertook field examinations of RS 2477 claims in Utah. While I do not know which and how many claims were examined, it is very likely that at least some, or portions, of the areas for which you now contemplate surrendering claims (or for which claims will be presented under the MOU) were examined by BLM staff in reviewing some of the 5,000 RS 2477 claims. Accordingly, this is to request that you immediately release to the public for its information and review all of the information resulting from and related to the field surveys and investigations which were conducted regarding RS 2477 claims in Utah during the previous Administration. The disclosure of this information will serve several important functions. First, it will facilitate public participation in the process. Second, disclosure will assist in the identification for the public and Congress of the claims which are valid and those which do not meet the legal requirements of RS 2477. Thus, it will contribute to public understanding of the validity of the claims in the Monument which you contemplate surrendering as well as the legal sufficiency of claims being processed under the Utah MOU, a process “designed to address those roads for which there is no legitimate debate about their legal sufficiency under RS 2477.”3 (Although, of course, debate continues on the question of the legitimacy of the MOU process itself.4) Third, making such information available will help address very legitimate public concerns about the availability of relevant public information that should be available to all taxpayers. The decisions which you will be making to disclaim ownership interests in Federal lands are very serious, with potentially grave consequences. Thus, it is vital that you take all appropriate steps to insure appropriate stewardship of the public’s lands and confidence in your decisions. Prompt and full disclosure of this information would be an important step in insuring full public understanding of the decisions which you will be making. Thank you for your attention to this matter. Sincerely yours, Joseph I. Lieberman Ranking Member JIL:kjs ——————————————————————————– 1 Smith, “Interior to consider dropping claims to some monument roads,” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 3, 2003. 2 U.S. Department of the Interior, Report to Congress on R.S. 2477: The History and Management of R.S. 2477 Rights-of-Way Claims on Federal and other Lands, June 1993 at 35. 3 Letter to the Honorable Joseph I. Lieberman, Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Governmental Affairs, U. S. Senate, from Rebecca W. Watson, Assistant Secretary, Land and Minerals Management, U.S. Department of the Interior, September 22, 2003, at 10. 4 CRS Report for Congress, Highway Rights of Way on Public Lands: R.S. 2477 and Disclaimers of Interest, November 7, 2003.