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Senator questions Interior on historic road,s trails

Posted: Tuesday, July 08, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) Connecticut senator and presidential candidate Joe Lieberman has written a lengthy letter to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton challenging recent efforts to legitimize historic rights of way across public lands in Alaska and other states.

The Democrat's letter contains almost 90 inquiries, covering everything from how the administration will set right-of-way application fees to whether Norton's recent actions have violated her commitment to ''consultation, cooperation and communication.''

Norton in April signed an agreement with Utah designed to help resolve disputes over historic rights of way. Utah and other states claim the rights of way under the federal Revised Statute 2477, which until it was repealed in 1976 allowed people to establish ''highways'' across unreserved federal land.

In the agreement, the federal agency promised to consider recognizing RS 2477 rights of way in Utah by issuing ''recordable disclaimers of interest,'' a legal washing-of-hands with regard to a property.

''These actions,'' Lieberman said in a letter July 2, ''could suddenly make vulnerable millions of acres of land, including federal lands protected as wilderness, national parks, national wildlife refuges and national monuments.''

Lieberman's concern mirrors that of environmental groups, who say the administration's policy could also preclude future wilderness set-asides by lacing eligible areas with roads.

RS 2477, passed in 1866, stated merely that ''the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted.'' Congress repealed those words in 1976, but any rights of way established before then are still considered legal.

Still, the specific actions a person had to take to establish a road, as well as the resulting boundaries and permitted uses, remain in great dispute.

Lieberman's 20-page letter pursues three themes:

Before the department recognizes rights of way, Lieberman said, he wants to know how it will define ''highway'' and ''construction.''

''Draft guidance suggests that the department may seek to establish interpretations of these words that will greatly expand the universe of claims,'' he wrote.

Lieberman wants to know whether recordable disclaimers can even be used to recognize RS 2477 rights of way. The method has not been used before, Lieberman said.

A rider that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, tacked on an appropriations bill during the Clinton administration may have prohibited the department from legally signing the agreement with Utah, Lieberman wrote. The General Accounting Office is investigating the issue, he said.

An Interior Department spokesman on Monday referred to the department's April 9 announcement of the agreement with Utah.

''By working collaboratively with the state of Utah,'' Norton said at the time, ''we are able to resolve a long-disputed issue that may otherwise have lead to costly and lengthy litigation.''

The federal government will not issue recordable disclaimers in national parks, refuges and wilderness areas, the department said.

Environmental groups have noted that Utah given up any of its claims in those areas. The department, in its announcement, said the agreement ''establishes a process to acknowledge existing roads that were and continue to be publicly traveled and regularly maintained.''

''A dirt road could not be transformed into a wider paved highway under the terms of the agreement without additional review by the Interior Department,'' according to the department news release.

The department invited other states to enter into similar agreements. In Alaska, Murkowski administration officials said the state would do so.



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