County Reaches Compromise With Feds Over Road Access In Mojave Preserve

The county of San Bernardino last week concluded a settlement with the federal government and three environmental groups over road access to remote areas in the Mojave National Preserve.
In 2006, the county filed a “quiet title” suit against the federal government to preserve access over what were then 14 county-maintained roads within the preserve. The federal government had moved to take over authority of the roads and the county claimed that the roads maintained by the county which are adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve are permanent and protected rights-of-way under Revised Statute 2477, part of the Mining Act of 1866, which allowed construction of roads across public lands. Revised Statute 2477 was repealed in 1976 and replaced with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which subjects the county to extensive environmental review and regulatory costs when it is invoked on county roads not established or authorized under Revised Statute 2477 before it was repealed. The county had not secured official acknowledgment or documentation of the Revised Statute 2477 rights from the Department of Interior, despite efforts to do so. Consequently, it filed suit to force the issue.
At the heart of the dispute was whether the public would continue to be able to reach land where many endangered or sensitive forms of wildlife existed.
The National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity joined the suit in support of the federal government, as part of an effort to prevent the county from creating a situation in which wildlife would be harmed.
Proposals and counterproposals from both sides failed for nearly six years to reach an acceptable middle ground. Last week, the federal government agreed to maintain at a cost of $53,000 annually all of the existing roads in the preserve under a rubric worked out between the county and the environmental groups that calls for the county to maintain ownership of two roads on public lands bordering the preserve that were used for travel before 1976 along with eight other roads within the preserve. The county agreed to the closure of four other roads in the preserve which encroach on areas where the environmental groups say species such as Joshua trees and desert tortoises are threatened.
The county entered into the settlement over the protest of supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, in whose First District the preserve is located. Mitzelfelt indicated he did not believe the National Park Service would adequately fund the road maintenance program. “Based on my own conversations with the Park Service, I have little confidence that they will be appropriated enough funding to properly maintain and improve those roads,” Mitzelfelt said.  “As far as a process to prevent arbitrary closure of roads, such a provision exists in the settlement.  But I fear the Park Service will simply go through the public process and consultations with the county and attempt to close roads anyway based on lack of funds.”

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