An old law is becoming a favorite tool among counties in the West trying to exert control over federal lands.
Kootenai County may become the latest in a series of counties to invoke the federal law in the debate over forest road closures.
County commissioners will consider a resolution today offered by Commissioner Ron Rankin that asserts the county’s jurisdiction over historic rights of way in the woods.
The move comes at a time when the Coeur d’Alene River ranger district is developing an access management plan which will direct what roads should be closed and what roads should remain open to the public. The U.S. Forest Service insists roads that would fall under the old law likely will remain open anyway.
Boundary County has passed a similar law in an attempt to prevent Forest Service closures within its borders.
“If they’re going to be closing down something that’s been there for 70 or 80 years, regardless of how ancient it is or whether there are trees growing on it, individuals can assert a right of way so they can’t shut it down or obliterate it,” Rankin said.
The county’s authority stems from federal statute 2477, passed in 1866, that was designed to promote settlement of the West. It allowed the construction of highways across public lands without permission of the federal government.
The law was repealed in 1976, but many highways established under it are still in use and considered protected, valid rights of way.
The law only applies to roads or trails established between 1866 and 1907 on Forest Service lands, however, because that’s when the forests were reserved as National Forest, and were removed from the public domain.
Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, has been promoting the ancient statute as a means to prevent the closure or obliteration of forest roads.
She and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, managed to get legislation passed last year that prevents the federal government from changing the management or recognition of the old rights of way.
The Blue Ribbon Coalition, which lobbies for public access for motorized recreation, also is encouraging counties to take advantage of the old law.
“It all comes down to what the local people in a specific area want,” said Adena Cook of the Blue Ribbon Coalition. “If they want the historic roads kept open, they should be kept open.”
Tom Magnuson, a Wallace tourism promoter, is looking into the law to preserve old forest roads in the Silver Valley and Montana for motorized recreation use.
Rankin’s proposed resolution comes with a form for individuals to fill out, indicating the location of a right of way to be added to the county’s inventory of roads, when it was first used by the public and how it was built.
Tom Stetson, a local contractor and advocate for public access, is already poring over old county maps and comparing them to current Forest Service maps.
“My concern is nothing on a specific road, it’s more broad-ranged,” Stetson said. “The Forest Service seems to come in and close large areas…This law from the 1860s seems to afford at the county level some management of our public lands.”
At the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District, the people working on the new access plan believe that their work won’t require the county to assert its authority to keep roads open.
“People will find that most of the roads that were built under that we’re using and they’re still open roads,” said Dennis Adams, a staff member. “In most of the options, most of the motorized trails stay motorized.”