Counties Question Matheson Vote on RS-2477 Funding Bill
During a Wednesday press conference, commissioners from five Utah counties questioned the vote cast last week by Congressman Jim Matheson on a United States Department of the Interior appropriations bill.
The counties ultimately won funding approval in the U.S. House. However, Matheson's unwillingness to support an agreement to resolve the ongoing RS-2477 road disputes has become an issue.
Special interest groups, especially the environmental lobby, sought to prohibit the U.S. Interior Department from spending federal money to implement the agreement.
The leaders from the five Utah counties were particularly disappointed with Matheson's vote against a compromise amendment to the federal legislation.
"We've worked for years and spent millions of dollars getting to this point," said Bill Krompel, Carbon County commissioner. "The alternative to dealing with these roads through an open public process is to spend many more years and millions more dollars in a lengthy court process. He visited our county last April and told us he supported the road agreement. But when it came down to a vote, he disappointed us."
Signed in April, the RS-2477 agreement spells out the framework for a process to evaluate county claims to roads on federal lands. The process includes having the U.S. government provide a "recordable disclaimer of interest" for roads that meet the evaluation criteria.
The counties maintain that the roads claimed under the process will be critical to the local transportation system and economy. Under the agreement, a road must be passable by full-sized vehicles in order to qualify for consideration.
"RS-2477 comes from clear back in the history of the country, 1866 to be exact," pointed out Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner. "Environmentalists claim that roads needed to be built with construction equipment to be viable roads today. Yet if you look back then, roads weren't built that way because there weren't even cars. Most roads were made by wagons passing through the same way time after time or people moved rocks by hand and cut down brush."
The battle in the U.S. Congress started when Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado drafted an amendment to the U.S. Interior Department appropriations bill which would have prohibited the use of federal revenues to fund the recordable disclaimer of interest process, indicated the officials during Wednesday's press conferrence.
Concerned that Udall may have secured enough votes in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the amendment, Congressmen Rob Bishop and Chris Cannon along with state as well as local officials at the county level focused attention on finding support for funding approval.
The officials encouraged Matheson to ask fellow Democrat Udall to pull the amendment, according to the county representatives participating in the press conference.
But despite the intense lobbying effort organized on the part of county commissioners, state officials and members of the Utah congressional delegation, Matheson seemed reluctant support the RS-2477 funding cause.
"We were in constant contact with him," maintained Mark Habbeshaw, Kane County commissioner during the press conference. "I went and spoke with him about it and he told me that 'my gut tells me it is going to pass.' He didn't indicate that he tried to get Udall to pull it or anything."
Matheson apparently tried submit his own amendment to the U.S. Department of the Interior appropriations bill
But according the county commission representatives, the amendment was ruled out of order at the U.S. House of Representatives.
However, the congressman from Utah felt that politics were at play when the ruling was rendered.
"Unfortunately, a vote on my amendment was not allowed because the Republican majority blocked it on a technicality - thereby denying us from making progress," he said in a statement from his office.
He also pointed out that his amendment was a better solution for solving the problems that face everyone.
"My amendment is not the perfect solution for anyone, but it addresses concerns of everyone," he explained. "It is important that we make progress on this issue. The only way to do that is to make decisions about where we start. There are roads that are clearly roads and we ought to get those off the table so we can move forward. My amendment would have set that in motion. Throughout my life, the Utah public lands debate has been characterized by lots of emotion and little progress. I have heard so many different points of view on this issue that I put pen to paper to try to bring those points of view together. I always balance the broad ranging views of my district and that was represented in my amendment today."
But the commissioners associated with the Wednesday meeting saw things differently.
"One of the values of having a Democrat in the Utah congressional delegation is to have influence with other congressional democrats. This issue was the time for Congressman Matheson to step up and tell Udall and other associates and peers that this was a bad amendment for Utah", stated Dave Haslem of Uintah County. "His vote didn't represent the best interest of Utah".
Despite the fact that commissioners claim the agreement signed this spring will advance the cause of most of these roads, they also know that there will still be litigation on some byways.
"This agreement is not a panacea," said Gardner. "Some roads will still be involved in litigation. But this legislation was important to resolving the problem."
Matheson sees it differently, obviously viewing it from another point of view.
"An unwillingness to move forward isn't going to solve our concerns and my fear is that we will once again go right down the path to more litigation - that doesn't serve anybody's purposes," he concluded. "I'm trying to come up with something that works. My pledge to all Utahns is that I will continue this fight another day."