Activists seek county control of U.S. routes

Group says road closures limit public access to land

A public-access group wants the Montezuma County Commission to assert jurisdiction over all roads within the county including those on BLM land, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and the San Juan National Forest.

The Southwest Public Lands Coalition presented legal evidence that they say proves every road within the county boundaries is ultimately controlled by the county.

Coalition chairman Dennis Atwater and co-chair Casey McClellan said closure of roads through the federal Travel Management Plan process is overreach and denies legal access to the public.

“It is clear that federal agencies are exceeding their authority by obstructing and decommissioning rights of ways that are not under their jurisdiction,” Atwater said. “They are denying citizens their legal rights and are willingly destroying public property.”

The group says federal agencies must go through the county planning process to close roads, and the final decision lies with the board of commissioners. According to the coalition, the county sheriff has the authority to reopen roads that have not gone through the abandonment procedures of the Montezuma County land-use code.

Atwater says that Under Colorado statute RS2477, roads in use before 1976 are legally protected rights of way that are not in the jurisdiction of federal land agencies. The group points to two roads that have been closed illegally on public lands: the Old Wagon Road, and the Center Stock Drive.

“We formally request the county direct the forest service to immediately repair and reopen those roads on Haycamp Mesa,” Atwater said. “Those are historical, and cultural properties that were destroyed with a bulldozer.”

The commissioners agreed that road closures on public lands unfairly block access for citizens. But they were skeptical they would be successful claiming jurisdiction over them in court.

“I’m not sure it is an extension of our jurisdiction by calling a road a right of way,” said commissioner Keenan Ertel. “I’m not saying roads that have been closed should be, but it is different to cast a wide net over all federal lands and say all those roads are county.”

Ertel said the expense of maintaining the roads and signing them wouldn’t be practical.

County attorney John Baxter agreed with the legal evidence that historical rights of way are in the control of the county. However, he said, such a claim would be difficult to prove in U.S. district court, which is where the case could land.

“Just because I agree, does not mean we would win in federal court,” he said. “There is a legal gray area over jurisdiction of roads at the local, state, and federal level. There are arguments on both sides.”

Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said some counties fight closures by beefing up land-use codes.

“We agree that they are our roads, but nothing in our land-use code says that,” he said. “We welcome the coalition’s help in amending our code so we have more bite to our bark.”

Ertel suggested the group “conduct an experiment open up some closed roads. Lets find out what happens.”

An initial strategy would be for the county to bring the BLM and U.S. Forest Service a map of all roads before 1976, and assert their right of way for public use, said McClellan.

“It is better if it comes from the county,” he said. “Assertion is the first step. They are closing roads that have been in use for generations. They are dictating to us what will happen not coordinating.”