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County sues feds over Tavaputs Plateau roads

Carbon County asserts ownership of the roads highlighted in red and blue. It has also been asking people to provide additional documentation of road usage prior to 1976.

Sun Advocate associate editor

Carbon County has filed suit against the Department of Interior in Federal District Court, asserting that several unpaved roads on the Tavaputs Plateau that have historically been used by citizens and maintained by the county do not belong to the federal government.

"We had no choice. They backed us into a corner," declared Commissioner Mike Milovich in an interview Wednesday. He added that the county has no problem with wilderness designation in areas that have been untouched for more than a century.

"They should be protected," he said of the lands in the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area on the east side of the county. However, in areas criss-crossed by dirt roads, there is no way to consider the region pristine wilderness.

The issue has been simmering for months and finally came to a boil when when the Bureau of Land Management ordered locked gates to be placed on four scenic backcountry roads around the Bill Barrett Corp.'s gas field development.

The county protested the unilateral decision by the BLM last July. The commission asserted that while it had agreed to consider a temporary closure of the roads, it would consent if and only if it was done according to Utah law.

That meant a commission decision based on evidence of need and a public hearing. Furthermore, any road closure can only last for two years, the county contended.

"The land is being managed in the interest of a minority, instead of for the majority," stated Commissioner John Jones in an earlier interview on wilderness issues facing the county.

Jones said wilderness advocates have persuaded the federal government to lock people out of recreational and economic areas they have used for generations.

Milovich called the lawsuit unfortunate but necessary because the county has a responsibility to maintain access the the area for recreation, ranching and energy production.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance was instrumental in the environmental negotiations that were part of the the agreement allowing Barrett to proceed with full field development.

SUWA attorney Steve Bloch told the Sun Advocate that he could not comment on the merits of the county's case because he had not had time to review the filing.

In general, however, he said that SUWA and the groups it represents have "a direct and vested interest in keeping those roads in federal ownership."

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