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Idaho mine claim owners sue over access to forests

Tue., Oct. 8, 2013

BOISE – Several Idaho mining claim owners sued the federal government late last week, the latest front in an effort by groups across the West that want to expand motorized backcountry access using a Civil War-era law.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Boise, argues the U.S. Forest Service illegally restricted use of four roads in Idaho County that make up the so-called “Buckhorn Creek Trail System.” The claim is similar to a lawsuit in Utah that was resolved earlier this year when the federal government agreed to open three roads, allowing all-terrain vehicles into that state’s western desert.

In the Idaho County case, owners of historic mining claims accessed by roads extending deep into the Nez Perce National Forest are demanding a judge affirm the public’s right to use the roads. They contend Forest Service officials outstripped their authority since at least 2001 by barring people from accessing roads used for more than a century, not only to reach mining claims, but also to hunt, fish, camp and sightsee.

“I don’t see this as a part of a movement, other than people are kind of waking up and figuring out their rights are being taken away by a federal government that’s being oppressive,” said Wesley Hoyt, a Clearwater, Idaho-based attorney for the group that calls itself Open Roads 4 Idaho, on Monday. “We’re going to do a quiet title action, so we can determine whether or not the Forest Service has the authority to restrict access.”

A phone call on Monday to Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests Supervisor Rick Brazell, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, wasn’t immediately returned.

Two weeks ago, Open Roads 4 Idaho’s 13 members persuaded Idaho County commissioners to be a part of the lawsuit, Commissioner Skip Brandt said.

“Everybody agreed the only way the Forest Service can actually recognize this claim” is to ask a judge to validate it, Brandt said.

The miners are relying on an 1866 law, known as R.S. 2477, which allows states or localities to claim ownership over historic routes crossing public lands. The law was repealed in 1976, though it left in place protection for existing roads.

The problem: Many of those roads, including in Idaho County and across much of the West, were never recorded on official documents. As a consequence, it’s led to protracted disputes in recent years about just which dirt paths crisscrossing the region’s remote hinterlands actually qualify for local control.

For instance, in Utah, there are more than two dozen active lawsuits claiming more than 14,000 roadways or paths are protected under R.S. 2477.

In August, one of those cases was resolved when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, two counties and a number of environmental groups reached a deal to reopen Granite Canyon, Toms Creek and Trout Creek roads that allow all-terrain vehicle riders to travel into the Deep Creek Mountains, just east of the Utah-Nevada border.

In Idaho, Hoyt said his group filed its lawsuit Friday not only because it was facing statute of limitation deadlines, but also because it believes the Forest Service was escalating attempts to close off roads.

In one instance, he said, the agency recently removed a lock on a chain that one of his group’s members had installed across a road leading to her property and replaced its own lock.


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