County seeks Congress’ help on Dolores-Norwood Road

Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 7:54 PM
Montezuma County installed this sign along the Dolores-Norwood Road as part of its effort to gain ownership from the U.S. Forest Service.
Montezuma County commissioners would like that the Dolores-Norwood Road be transferred to the county from the U.S. Forest Service through congressional legislation.

Montezuma County commissioners prefer the U.S. Congress will secure county ownership of the Dolores-Norwood Road to going to court against the U.S. Forest Service.

The county commissioners met with Liz Payne, legislative aide for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, to push the option of adding transfer of the Dolores-Norwood Road onto a current bill that would convey federal land to the West Fork Volunteer Fire Department for a new station.

“We really need Tipton’s help on this,” said county commissioner Keenan Ertel. “It is a public safety issue.”

The Dolores-Norwood road (Forest Road 526) is under the jurisdiction of the San Juan National Forest for 10 miles north of Dolores. The commissioners want outright ownership of the road because they believe they can keep it better maintained than the Forest Service. They have been repairing it more than they are required to under a maintenance agreement with the forest.

The commissioners have claimed for several years that it is a county road because it was in place before the San Juan National Forest was created, and they want it deeded back to them. They cite evidence from a 2016 study showing the road was there before the national forest and that it was a historic Ute migration route.

However, for it to qualify under Revised Statute 2477, a federal law allowing county claims for road ownership, it must go through a court process with the U.S. Forest Service and have a judge decide.

A slight realignment of the road in the 1950s near House Creek could jeopardize the county’s legal claims on the road, so a legislative solution is being sought, county officials said.

“It dawned on us to see if the transfer of the road could be added on to a bill,” said county attorney John Baxter. “There is no resistance to the road transfer, even by local forest officials.”

But Payne did not think attaching it to the “very straightforward” West Fork fire station conveyance bill was the best option. She said another hurdle would be identifying for transfer a long strip of land that is the road, and allowing a buffer in case future realignment was needed.

“There is no question that our office sees this as something that should be given to Montezuma County,” Payne said. “At this point, I don’t see attaching it to the West Fork fire station bill.”

Ertel urged Tipton’s office to consider it. “The Westfork bill has no opposition, and the transfer of our road back to us has no opposition, it’s a win-win.”

Another option available to the county is obtaining a 99-year easement on the road through the Federal Easement Road and Trail Act. The Forest Service is also supportive of this alternative, which would give the county jurisdiction of the road while still allowing them to seek R.S. 2477 claims.

But the county has been against a FERTA easement because of contract language that it could be revoked by the Forest Service, although forest officials say that possibility is very remote.

Baxter said he drafted a FERTA contract that removed the revocable lease language, but upper management of the Forest Service were not open to that negotiation. Payne said she would try and broker a deal with the Forest Service on removing the revocable lease language.

“A lease could get done quicker because legislation could take several sessions of Congress,” Payne said.

At any rate, the commissioners said they will continue to fight for deeded jurisdiction of the road, but also may seek the FERTA easement in the meantime.

“We will push for legislation, explore the easement option and go to court to prove it is ours,” Ertel said.

The Dolores-Norwood Road is becoming more heavily used for residents, recreationists, commuters, loggers, and the oil and gas industry, county officials say. Its frequent wash-boarding and lack of gravel is a common complaint.

To improve safety, the county wants to extend the pavement for 4 miles to the Dolores County line. With ownership, the chip-seal project would avoid time-consuming federal regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act. Also, if under county jurisdiction, national forest transportation fees currently charged to logging companies and other commercial users of the road would be dropped.