County asserts ownership of Dolores-Norwood Road

Thursday, July 7, 2016 3:10 PM
Montezuma County recently installed this sign along the Dolores-Norwood Road near the base of Dunlap Hill.
Montezuma County Commissioners are considering asking the U.S. Forest Service to turn the Dolores Norwood Road over to the county after the Forest Service started writing tickets to commercial vehicles on the road.
Montezuma County has installed a dozen of these signs to remind drivers of the new ordinance allowing Off Highway Vehicles on green-signed county roads. This one is on County Road 31, also called the Dolores-Norwood Road.

For the past three years, the Montezuma County Commission has been asserting county jurisdiction of the historic Dolores-Norwood road where it passes through 10 miles of the San Juan National Forest north of Dolores.

The county claims jurisdiction under Revised Statute 2477, which dates to the 1872 Mining Law that established public rights of way. They want ownership to provide improved maintenance, to allow ATV use, and to eliminate commercial transportation fees charged by the U.S. Forest Service.

While the county believes it has jurisdiction, the Forest Services says they must submit a RS2477 claim proving the road existed before the San Juan National Forest was established in 1905. A court then makes a final ruling.

The county hired Andrew Gulliford, a history and environmental studies professor at Fort Lewis College, to research the matter and present evidence that the Dolores-Norwood Road (Forest Road 526) was in use before 1905.

Last month, Gulliford, along with coauthor Chris Maschino, of Locus Dynamics Research, presented their findings claiming use of the road predates the establishment of the forest.

“The Lone Cone Road, also known as the Dolores-Norwood Road, began as an historic Ute Indian trail corridor and evolved into a public wagon road. This report proves historic public use of the Lone Cone Road and patenting of private lands along its route prior to 1905.”

Some highlights of the report :

The 1875 Hayden Survey drew the trail for the“Map of the Region Occupied by the Ancient ruins in Southern Colorado, Utah, & Northern New Mexico and Arizona,” which was published with the 1877 Hayden Atlas. This is probably the first map that shows the Ute Indian Trail, which would become the Lone Cone Road used by ranching families for decades. Traveled for more than a century, the exact alignment varied from time to time, but it is continually reflected on Colorado maps from 1875 to 1905.By 1881, “Nell’s New Topographical & Township Map of the State of Colorado” shows the Big Bend of the Dolores River and the Indian trail/Lone Cone route headed north on the east side of Lone Mesa. Rico, Parrott, Mancos, and Fort Lewis are seen on the map, but Cortez and Montezuma County do not exist. South of the Big Bend of the Dolores, and south of what is now U.S. Highway 160, the trail is identified as a “wagon trail” so the Lone Cone route could have been publicly used by wagons as early as 1881.State and regional maps dating before 1905 show the north-south Lone Cone or Dolores-Norwood Road leaving from the Big Bend and traversing northerly on the plateau separating the south flow from the north flow of the Dolores River.During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which distributed free land to those willing to farm. It was this legal statute, and the subsequent RS2477, that guaranteed access to land claims by trail or wagon road, prompting pioneers to enter the part of La Plata County that would become Montezuma County.Along the Lone Cone Road, pioneers “proved up land” under the Homestead Act, accessing it under RS2477. The land was sold before 1905 to the New Mexico Lumber Co., which would dominate timber cutting in Southwest Colorado from its lumber mill town of McPhee, now under McPhee Reservoir.What is now public land along the approximately 10 miles of Forest Service road in Montezuma County began as scattered homesteads accessed off an Indian trail that became a two-track wagon road.In Montezuma County, proof of homestead patents represents proof of public access even though private property has again become part of the public domain.Before the establishment of Montezuma County in 1889 or the town of Dolores in 1892, cattlemen wanted to skirt the mountains, so they utilized the Lone Cone Road when it was a trail.The report concludes that the Lone Cone Road, later known as the Dolores-Norwood Road, “may be one of the oldest public routes in Southwest Colorado. It shows up on the very earliest maps, and it became a vital link connecting Montezuma, Dolores, and San Miguel counties.”

“This document proves the Dolores-Norwood Road belongs to Montezuma County,” said county commissioner Larry Don Suckla.

It was submitted to the San Juan National Forest. To view the report go to