Montezuma County Asserts Jurisdiction over Historic Roads

2/3/2021

If an old wagon road, mule-train route, or trail existed before the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management were established, does that make them public rights-of-way open to travel now although they're on federal land? That depends.

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A Montezuma County inventory

of historical roots

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across private and public lands,

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has identified nearly 140 rights of way

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including dozens in the Canyons

of the Ancients Monument.

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But does that mean the public

will have access to them all?

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That depends.

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You're watching the Local News Network

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brought to you by Keesee Motor in Cortez

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and the Overlook at Edgemont Highlands,

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I'm Wendy Graham Settle.

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Montezuma County wants to

ensure that federal agencies

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include the county in any

land management decisions

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that affect historical

public rights of way,

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and that could mean more public access

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to federal public lands.

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In a letter sent December 29th

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to the Bureau of Land Management's

Tres Rios Field Office

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and the Dolores Ranger District

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on the San Juan National Forest,

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the Montezuma County

commissioners asserted

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that historical roots

remain public rights of way

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whether they're on

private or public lands.

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Last year the county

inventoried and accepted

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138 historical roots

as public rights of way

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under the county's road management plan.

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Many of those routes

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currently are managed by the

Forest Service and the BLM,

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but that doesn't mean those routes

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will automatically be

open to public travel.

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Complex legal questions

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over which agency has management control,

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whether the federal

government or the county,

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most likely will have to be

adjudicated in Federal Court.

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In the meantime, the

inventory opens a window

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on the historical pathways

that have been used over time

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to haul supplies to mining camps,

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deliver mail to isolated communities

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or move cattle from summer

range to winter pasture.

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This whole process really kind of conforms

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to the National Landscape

Conservation System Act

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where one of the purposes of that act

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was to identify and inventory

historic traces of pathways

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or historic routes.

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And so in essence, that's

exactly what we've done here,

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not all of these roads

are open to the public,

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some are already open,

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it's not that all these roads

were suggested to be closed,

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this is simply an inventory

of the ones that we think

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have some historic significance.

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The county basis its assertions

on Revised Statute 2477,

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a federal law passed in 1866

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that established

regulations for homesteading

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and road construction across public lands

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to encourage settlement.

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It was repealed in 1976

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under the Federal Land

Management and Policy Act,

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that gave the federal government control

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over historical travel

routes on federal lands.

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Montezuma County claims in its letter

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that public rights of way are

any routes regularly traveled

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whether by foot, horse, wagon or vehicle,

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and if they existed before 1976

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they should still be open to the public.

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As we can see, some of them are ones

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that most people are going to recognize,

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Bear Creek for example, the

Colorado Trail for example,

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Ryman Creek, Scotch Creek.

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So these are all trails

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that most of us in the area recognize

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as being very, very old trails,

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most of us probably don't realize

they're as old as they are

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or the significance, Bear

Creek Trail, for example,

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was a primary connector between

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the mining district up

around Kennebec Pass

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and the Rico District.

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And so at the time since

no roads really existed

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pack trail, that's how you got supplies

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to and from the different regions,

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and we've got photographs of a pack trail

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running down that trail,

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supposedly it looks like

it's loaded with barrels

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and supposedly it was a load of whiskey

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that they were taking.

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Dietrich says the inventory

and the letter are in effort

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to ensure that federal

agencies include the county

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on decisions that impact

access to public lands

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over historical routes

identified in the inventory.

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For example,

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the track once open to

motorcycles on Bear Creek

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is now closed to motorized vehicles,

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a move that many county residents opposed.

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In the Canyons of the Ancients Monument,

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Dietrich suggested that the government

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could improve historical routes

rather than build new roads

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to increase public access to remote areas.

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And in some cases,

Dietrich said the county

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also could assert jurisdiction

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over historical rights

of way on private lands

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where landowners prohibit

monument access now.

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So it's really primarily

maintaining what access we have,

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if we have a situation where

access is going to be locked off,

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yet we've had that access

for all those years,

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then it's important to

maintain that access,

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but in terms of really trying to reach out

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and establish new areas,

new economic development,

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that's really not so much the factor

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it is just kind of maintaining

what we've already got.

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To learn more about the inventory,

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visit the county's website

at montezumacounty.org.

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Thanks for watching this edition

of the Local News Network,

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stay in touch and get

the latest local news

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on Instagram and Twitter.

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I'm Wendy Graham Settle.

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