The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found that San Juan County and the State of Utah failed to prove the Salt Creek Canyon road had been in continuous public use before Congress created the park in 1964.
Attorneys for the county and state had claimed that U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins “glossed over” or disregarded historical evidence that homesteaders, ranchers, miners and others had been using the road since the late 19th Century.
They invoked an 1866 law to claim that the 12.3-mile dirt route is a county right-of-way, and they argued that Jenkins did not adequately consider a ranching operation’s use of the road.
By closing the road, they said, the park service is preventing many people who are not in top physical shape from reaching Angel Arch and other scenic wonders inside the Needles District.
The appeals court agreed that more and more tourists were using the road by the time that Congress formally established Canyonlands National Park in September 1964. But visitation numbers were much lower just a few years before tourists discovered the area, according to the court.
“During the 1950s, a visit to Salt Creek Canyon and Angel Arch was an experience marked by pristine solitude,” the court ruled.
At that time, the Salt Creek road was not used by many people, or different people, for any number of reasons, the court found.
Instead, the Scorup-Somerville Cattle Co., generated much of the traffic as it moved livestock through the area. However, the state’s courts have consistently ruled that a use under a private right is not enough to show that public use occurred, the appeals court ruled.
The National Park Service closed the route in response to a 1995 lawsuit from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).
Liz Thomas, the group’s Moab-based field attorney, welcomed the latest ruling.
She believes it could reverberate down the line, noting that the state is taking legal action to claim jurisdiction over an estimated 36,000 miles of disputed roads in Utah.
“We think it’s a great ruling,” Thomas said. “We think it has important implications beyond Salt Creek.”
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said the county plans to ask another panel of judges to review the latest ruling.
Lyman wasn’t openly critical of the decision, but he said he found it interesting that the court wanted to hear testimony from “living witnesses.”
As the county’s population ages, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find anyone who can comment on historic uses of roads in the county, he said.
“If that’s the case and there are more closures, you’re going to see a lot more protests like you did on Saturday,” he said, referring to an all-terrain vehicle ride through Recapture Canyon near Blanding.