The Dolores-Norwood Road is a key travel corridor for the region, and the Montezuma County Commissioners want more local control on how it is managed.
The 55-mile, mostly graveled, network of roads connects the two rural towns, crossing through Montezuma, Dolores, and San Miguel counties, and passing through the San Juan National and Uncompahgre national forests.
It is the main access for the Groundhog Reservoir community, and is heavily relied on by the oil and gas industry, commercial loggers and ranchers, recreationalists, and hunters.
Upset about commercial travel fees and regulation by the U.S. Forest Service, which controls most of the road, the county is considering claiming historic-use rights dating to before the land was reserved by the federal government.
In an unsigned letter handed to District Ranger Derek Padilla of the Dolores Public Lands office, the county “respectfully assert our jurisdictional rights over the Dolores/Norwood Road #526 under Revised Statute 2477.”
The statute is used by local governments to claim ownership over roads managed by federal or state land agencies, and, in some cases, for historic roads that are privately claimed.
Petitioners must prove the right of way route existed before the San Juan National Forest was formed in 1905.
According to the letter, Montezuma County claims the road “historically served as a public highway connecting two regional incorporated towns since the late 1800’s and well prior to the reservation of the United States Forest Service.”
The county requests “fee simple conveyance without delay,” and that the right of way be 100 feet in width along the road.
“RS 2477 claims (for FS roads) are handled through the courts, and the county is the responsible party for making the case,” said Padilla when handed the letter.
‘A DIFFERENT PATH’
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said county control of their portion of the road would limit, or eliminate, user fees currently charged to local industry.
“The road generates millions of dollars in logging, ranching, hunting, and oil and gas, and it would be managed through our very reasonable county road-use policy. Under our jurisdiction it would not have such a financial hit on those industries,” Suckla explained.
A more common conveyance of forest service roads to county governments is through a lease agreement through the Forest Trails and Roads Act, which was originally sought by the commissioners for the Dolores-Norwood Road.
“We had received notification of the county’s desire to move forward with transferring jurisdiction of the road to them under the FTRA, and have been working towards that goal for the last six months,” said District Ranger Padilla. “The commissioners have since decided to pursue a different path for transfer of jurisdiction” through the RS 2477 process “and we will work with them however they want to proceed.”
Padilla noted that use patterns have changed on the road, and it is not primarily used for forest access purposes anymore. It is now used to access private property, as a major thoroughfare from Dolores to Norwood, and for oil and gas activities.
“This has led to several requests for year-round access,” he said.
Suckla said they are considering changing course because the easement leases for Forest Service roads have less certainty long term.
“We would rather pursue the road through a RS 2477 claim because a right-of-way lease is revocable, so we don’t want to get control of the road and then have it taken away later,” Suckla said, adding that seeking ownership is just a preliminary proposal and takes a lot of research.
“It is a discovery process. The road was built as a state highway in the 1920s and it was constructed on pre-existing stagecoach lines through there.”
PERMIT CHECK POINT
Suckla said the fee for cattle trucks is included in their grazing permits. Loggers, construction trucks and oil and gas equipment also require commercial travel permits or risk a fine.
The authority to require commercial road use, fees and permits comes from the National Forest Roads and Trails Act of 1964.
According to the Dolores Public Land Center, the purpose of the road-use permit is to protect the Forest Service’s investment in the road system impacted by heavy commercial traffic. The permit system provides a mechanism to collect road maintenance funds from users who are using Forest Service roads for purposes outside of what is provided to the recreating public. It currently costs approximately $70,000 per mile to resurface a road with aggregate.
The amount assessed for each permit varies on a case-by-case basis and is dependent on such factors as season of use, weight of vehicles, number of trips, or for home construction, by square footage.
A check-point last fall on the Dolores-Norwood Road caught some commercial users of the road by surprise. Builders hauling lumber and cement trucks were reportedly ticketed for not having a permit.
“One of our drivers was stopped hauling lumber to a home up there and was issued a $220 ticket,” said Kevin Boyd, co-owner of Choice Building Supply in Cortez.
“It is something we were not aware of, and I applied for permit but have not heard back about it for months now. Seems like another government fee for regular use.”
To apply for a road use permit in Montezuma or Dolores counties, contact Patrick McCoy at the Dolores Public Lands Center, (970) 882-6821.