The Moffat County commissioners passed a resolution in January that the county land use board chairman said would help the county maintain its custom and culture by assuring recreational, agricultural and mineral development on federal lands in Moffat County.
A recent letter written by the director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to the United States Department of Interior indicates that the state has Moffat County's back in its January decision.
In that decision, the commissioners approved an RS 2477 Inventory Protocol, which recognizes more than 2,000 miles of roads that snake through federal lands in the county.
The road system includes some paths only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles and some pathways that can only be traveled by horseback for the movement of livestock.
Some of the roads recognized in the inventory are more than 100 years old.
Moffat County's January decision, combined with the recent letter from the state to the Department of Interior, have made Moffat County a focal point in an ongoing debate between RS 2477 backers and the environmental community -- on a state, and national level.
The debate comes as a result of the impact that some think it might have on such places as Dinosaur National Monument, Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge and proposed wilderness areas such as Vermillion Basin.
In the letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton dated March 15, Colorado Department of Natural Resources Director Greg Walcher makes reference to a recent agreement between the state of Utah and the Department of Interior regarding RS 2477 roads.
He states that Colorado too would like to come to an agreement with the Department of Interior, but notes that Colorado laws are different from Utah, and asks that Colorado go through a separate process.
Moffat County Natural Resources Director Jeff Comstock, who played a key role in drafting Moffat County's RS 2477 plan, said Walcher was right on the mark in his letter.
Comstock explained Moffat County's reason for striving to recognize the RS 2477 roads.
"We're guaranteeing public access, which the wilderness proposals are trying to take away," he said. "We're trying to protect the existing rights that Congress has given us."
Comstock said Walcher has a good handle on Colorado and United States law in the letter he that has written to the Department of Interior.
"He's on the right path and we support what he's doing," Comstock said.
But Jennifer Seidenberg of the Colorado Wilderness Network office in Steamboat Springs, said what Walcher is proposing goes far beyond the agreement that was reached in Utah.
"What they're trying is beyond reason," she said.
Walcher identified several issues in the Utah agreement that he said in his letter should be expanded upon to fall in compliance with Colorado law.
A few of those issues include:
o The width of recognized rights-of-way. In the Utah agreement, the width of the rights-of-way applied to the actual width of the road itself. But Walcher states, "Colorado law recognizes that road maintenance commonly requires right-of-way wider than that actually disturbed the road itself.
o What is actually considered a right-of-way. The Utah MOU does not acknowledge the existence of RS 2477 rights-of-way unless the road is capable of accommodating four-wheel vehicles, and is subject to periodic maintenance. Walcher states that Colorado law indicates that bulldozers, graders, or other forms of mechanical means are not necessary to demonstrate construction or maintenance.
o Where rights-of-way can be declared. In the Utah MOU, right-of-way cannot be acknowledged within a Wilderness Study Area, on National Park Service lands, or within a National Wildlife Refuge. But in Colorado, Walcher states, these rights-of-way can be declared in all of those land categories.
The last argument made by Walcher is one of the main issues that has Colorado environmental groups up in arms, and is one reason Moffat County is continually involved in the issue.
The debate being, should rights-of-way be declared in places such as Dinosaur National Monument and Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge?
Twenty-one environmental organizations that expressed their opposition to Walcher's letter in a press release this week, don't think they should.
"The proposal from the Owens administration, contained in a May 15th letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, would irreparably degrade habitat and water quality, undermine the purpose and essence of these specially designated places, and diminish Colorado's economy and quality of life," the release states.
The release later makes direct reference to Moffat County.
"The proposal puts at risk such lands as Dinosaur National Monument and Browns Park national Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Colorado, where Moffat County has proposed taking over hundreds of miles of cattle trails, hiking paths, jeep tracks and nearly invisible routes as "constructed highways,' using a 19th century right-of-way law known as Revised Statute RS 2477."
Former Moffat County Commissioner Neil McCandless is quoted in the press release opposing the state of Colorado's stance on the issue.
"The Owens administration defies common sense in sending this letter," McCandless said. "Cows and hikers don't construct highways, and we don't need hundreds of miles of roads in the middle of spectacular landscapes like Dinosaur National Monument."
The same 21 groups who put out the press release this week also wrote a letter addressed to Governor Bill Owens.
That letter also makes reference to Moffat County's RS 2477 claims, and states that if those rights-of-way were to be granted to the county, the environmental impacts could be "devastating."
"We believe the approach suggested in Director Walcher's letter is unwise, illegal, would lead to tremendous destruction of Colorado's environment, and is an extreme and unbalanced approach to this issue," the letter states.
But Moffat County officials maintain that the purpose of declaring these RS 2477 roads is not to destroy the landscapes of monuments, parks and wilderness areas, but simply to guarantee citizens' access to such places.
"We agree with the governor and state's position and we've proved that we're abiding by the law," Comstock said.
Josh Nichols can be reached at 824-7031 or email@example.com.