Friday, December 5, 2014

Tenth Circuit Issues Decision Regarding Claims to R.S. 2477 Rights-of-Way over Federal Lands

On December 2, the Tenth Circuit (Kelly, Bacharach, Phillips) issued a decision in Kane County v. United States, the latest in a series of cases involving challenges to federal title under Revised Statute 2477. This case is part of an ongoing dispute between Kane County, in southern Utah, and the federal government, in which the County has sought to establish rights-of-way in and across federal lands to allow off-road vehicle use in areas that would otherwise be subject to closure or restrictions under federal law. Kane County filed this action in 2008, seeking to quiet title to portions of 15 roads under Section 8 of the Mining Act, commonly referred to as Revised Statute 2477, or “R.S. 2477.”  R.S. 2477 was repealed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976, except as to “valid existing” R.S. 2477 rights.  The government moved to dismiss the County’s claims on the basis that a jurisdictional trigger in the Quiet Title Act – disputed title – was lacking.  The district court disagreed.  On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed, establishing, for the first time, that only unambiguous and consistent assertions of title by the federal government are sufficient to create a title dispute.  In other words, “actions of the United States that merely produce some ambiguity regarding a plaintiff’s title are insufficient to constitute ‘disputed title’” and prevent the court from exercising jurisdiction.  With respect to the individual roads at issue in the case, the court held that the district court erred in asserting jurisdiction over a handful, but affirmed jurisdiction over several others.  The court also addressed a statute of limitations argument under the Quiet Title Act for one of the road sections traversing a Wilderness Study Area, holding that federal designation of the WSA was not sufficient to give notice to the county of federal ownership of the roads because it was not an adequate assertion of “exclusive control” by the federal government.  Finally, the court reaffirmed its rule regarding the scope of an R.S. 2477 right-of-way: once established, an R.S. 2477 road can be widened in a “reasonable and necessary manner”, but only in light of pre-1976 uses of the road.

—Hillary Hoffmann

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