Across the West, a pesky 138-year-old federal law is pitting local governments against both liberal environmentalists and conservative property-rights advocates.
Now, Colorado Senate Majority Leader John Andrews wants Congress to fix the mess.
Andrews has introduced a resolution in the state Legislature that calls on federal lawmakers to clarify confusion over RS 2477, a law passed by Congress in 1866 that allows local governments to claim rights-of-way across public lands where roads have historically existed.
The old law, considered open to many different interpretations due to its vague language, has sparked a growing number of often-bitter legal battles in recent years. Environmental groups say local governments are making bogus claims under the law to open up unnecessary roads across wilderness areas. Meanwhile, many owners of "inholdings" -- private land parcels that were formerly public and that are often surrounded by public lands -- are fighting efforts by local governments to force open roads across their properties.
Andrews says he was talked into introducing his resolution by representatives from Property Owners for Sensible Roads Policy, a Boulder-based group of landowners who have battled local governments over the issue.
The resolution doesn't call for specific changes to RS 2477; it merely asks Congress to clarify the law's application.
"I think the resolution is going to do well legislatively, because it does not come down and pass judgment on the fundamental merit of RS 2477," Andrews said. "It simply points out the terrible ambiguity that exists in the absence of some clarification from Congress."
A proposal to reform RS 2477 has already been introduced in Congress. Under a bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Udall, a Boulder Democrat, any local government wishing to claim a right-of-way would be required to prove that the road in question has served continuously as a bona-fide, regularly maintained highway. Udall's bill would also require all future claims under RS 2477 to be filed within four years of the bill's enactment.
Darwin Floyd, a Divide resident who has battled attempts by Teller County to open up a road across his property, said he backs Andrews' resolution, though he doubts it will help much.
"It does nothing," Floyd said. "It's a stopgap measure."
The state Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to hear the resolution Thursday.
-- Terje Langeland