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Conveyances, Disclaimers and Ancient Statutes:
Big Words and Murky Policy as a Land Management Strategy
By Jen Lamb, NOLS Public Policy Director
Jen Lamb, NOLS Public Policy Director
© Brad Christensen


Lately, when people ask me how things are going with NOLS’ national public policy efforts, I have to take a long pause. There is a LOT going on in the realm of federal land management, but very little of it is easy to understand or explain. Thus the pause.

Since the last election, we have been tracking and commenting on numerous changes to federal agency policy that we believe have the potential to affect the long-term quality of our outdoor classrooms. By themselves, many of these changes—obscured by technical agency language and “legalese”—seem relatively innocuous. It has become apparent, though, that they are piecemeal, incremental, and some might even say subversive, changes to agency policy that, when added together, may amount to a significant and negative cumulative effect on public lands. Sound like strategy?

An example of one of these changes involves Revised Statute 2477. RS2477, as it is commonly known, was originally enacted as a section of the 1866 Mining Law, a law that was intended to promote settlement of the West. The Act, which granted rights-of-way for the construction of highways over public lands, was repealed in 1976 with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). FLPMA established a more modern and inclusive process for determining access to federal land. FLPMA doesn’t apply to claims that existed prior to 1976, however, so rural citizens, counties, and federal land agencies have been arguing for years about how to resolve this issue. In the meantime, claimants have been building and “improving” roads into wilderness-quality lands throughout the West, hoping that the mere exercise of their right-of-way will grant them legal ownership.

In January, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a final rule giving RS2477 new life by making it easier for claims to rights-of-way on public land to be legally recognized. Under the rule, the BLM has the authority to issue documents, called “disclaimers,” that grant rights-of-way across federal lands without environmental review. A recent agreement between Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt purports to settle all of Utah’s RS2477 claims through one sweep of the agency’s wand. Other states are seeking similar agreements. If they succeed, thousands of miles of roads could be constructed in National Parks, National Monuments, wilderness areas, and other invaluable public lands.

We believe, as do many regional and national conservation organizations, that this rule, combined with RS2477 and the recent Utah agreement, has the potential to render large areas of public land in the West and Alaska unsuitable for future wilderness designation. The states of Utah, Colorado, California and several counties within nearly every western state have already filed claims to significant areas of public land.

Adding frustration to confusion is the fact that it is difficult to identify what we as an organization can do to affect the outcome of these changes. There is no formal public process currently under way. NOLS has joined a coalition of organizations that have united to oppose the use of RS2477 to increase unregulated access to public land. This coalition is launching a number of legislative and grassroots efforts aimed at reforming the way the issue is being handled. Visit their website at www.RS2477.org for more information. For news about NOLS’ efforts, send an e-mail to jennifer_lamb@nols.edu.

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