MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. From most perspectives, this windblown landscape is the definition of off the beaten path. Sandy hummocks give way to flinty mountain ranges and a seemingly impassable expanse that is home to herds of bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and a universe of heat-loving plants.
But others see the preserve's 1.6 million acres of creosote bushes and ribbed desert washes and envision thousands of miles of roads. Ditto for Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, along with wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada and along California's rugged northern coast.
That vision of unfettered motorized access to remote backcountry is a lot closer to reality because of a Bush-administration policy quietly adopted earlier this month.
Bowing to long-standing pressure from several Western states and counties, the Interior Department's new policy gives local decision-makers the opportunity to lay claim to tens of thousands of miles of rights of way across federal land.
Enacted through a rules change, the new policy has the potential to open millions of acres in national parks and federally designated wilderness areas to motorized traffic. By providing access to isolated holdings, it also could open remote backcountry to drilling for oil and gas and other commercial development.
The policy does not convey rights of way to local jurisdictions automatically. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management must rule on the validity of each claim. The agency is virtually certain to face legal challenges.
Nonetheless, wilderness advocates have cause for alarm. The Bush administration has made its preference clear for granting state and local authorities increasing say in the way federal lands are used.
Deputy Interior Secretary Steve Griles recently told a group of Alaska mining and energy executives that the administration would soon approve rights-of-way claims from that state.
Alaska, Utah and other states, as well as a handful of Southern California counties, are asserting the rights-of-way claims under a little-known 1866 law to encourage the development of the rural West. The law was repealed in 1976, but states and counties were able to make claims if the roads existed before 1976.
In many cases, what authorities are claiming as roads amount to little more than wagon tracks, livestock paths and even dogsled routes in Alaska. But with four-wheel-drive transmissions and muscular off-road vehicles, even the most primitive routes can allow access to untrammeled places.
The issue heated up in the 1990s as off-road vehicle enthusiasts, hunters, ranchers and mining and energy interests became increasingly concerned about the Clinton administration's efforts to curtail road building in national forests, restrict mining near national parks and create parks and monuments.
Park and wilderness advocates fear the new access will disrupt wildlife habitat, turning 19th-century wagon ruts into paved roads, allowing cars and their pollution into unspoiled places.
"We're concerned about highways, but in a way that's just the tip of the iceberg," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
McIntosh said one of the right-of-way claims in Utah leads down a waterfall and another through a 4-foot-wide slot canyon.
"With roads comes pollution, wildlife fragmentation, off-road vehicles, the loss of solitude and quiet," said McIntosh.
Ten years ago, the National Park Service evaluated potential claims and found that if the roads were allowed, the impact would be devastating.
"If a court were to decide that the law says the right-of-way roads have precedence over legally designated wilderness, that would have a catastrophic effect on wilderness," said David Graber, senior science adviser at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks and a member of the Park Service's wilderness steering committee.
Today, Interior officials say the change is needed to streamline time-consuming disputes and lengthy legal proceedings. The new rule removes public comment and judicial review from the process and gives the Bureau of Land Management sole authority to validate right-of-way claims.
"It's been a long and arduous fight because the previous administration wasn't cooperating. Now, we've found willing ears," said Clark Collins, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an Idaho-based organization representing motorized recreation interests.
"In rural areas, people are very interested in this issue, it means so much to all of us," said Ron Schiller, who heads a recreation group in Ridgecrest, Calif., that supports rights of way claims. "Up here in the high desert, this is what we have to recreate. We don't have a lot of miniature golf courses or big theaters or theme parks."
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company