Volume 3, Number 50 - March 11, 2004
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Erramouspe Road lawsuit fails
Oral arguments were held last Friday morning in a federal courtroom in Cheyenne in the Sublette County Commission lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management over the RS-2477 designation of the Erramouspe Road, which the commission claims as a county road and the BLM disputes.
The commissioners, who were in session on Friday, were unable to attend the hearing, which lasted for about an hour before Federal Judge Clarence Brimmer. The BLM had filed a motion to dismiss the case, alleging that a Wyoming statute in effect prohibits RS-2477 claims in the state.
Sublette County Commissioner Bill Cramer said after conferring with the county's legal counsel in the case, Karen Budd-Falen, he learned that Brimmer had ruled from the bench, with the county on the losing end.
Cramer said the county would await Brimmer's written ruling before deciding whether to appeal the decision. Cramer said it was his understanding that Brimmer relied heavily on the Wyoming Supreme Court's interpretation of the state law in his decision. Cramer pointed out that the Wyoming caselaw at issue addressed county roads crossing private lands, not public lands. The Erramouspe Road only crosses public lands, so the private-lands law shouldn't apply, Cramer said.
The county teamed up with the John Erramouspe family to file the lawsuit in October 2002 under the Quiet Title Act for a recognized right-of-way under RS-2477, an 1877 statute that provided that "the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted."
RS-2477 was repealed with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, although this repeal did not affect the status of rights-of-way already in existence at the time of repeal.
The Sublette County lawsuit was filed for the five-mile stretch of road that traverses public land off Highway 191 into the Erramouspes' ranch 36 miles south of Pinedale near the Big Sandy River. The county filed the lawsuit seeking to ensure public access at all times and in order to maintain the road without approval or notification to the BLM.
The state law being examined in this case states: "It shall be the duty of the several boards of county commissioners, within their respective counties ... to cause such roads to be recorded, or if need be laid out, established and recorded, and all roads recorded as aforesaid, shall be highways. No other roads shall be highways unless and until lawfully established as such by official authority."
The county argued that the state law, as interpreted by the Wyoming Supreme Court, stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the purposes and objectives Congress sought to achieve in enacting RS-2477. The question whether a certain state statute is pre-empted by federal law is one of congressional intent, the county argued, and in this case, state law should be pre-empted.
The county argued that a state statute that in effect vacates an established RS-2477 right-of-way "stands as an egregious obstacle to the accomplishment of the purposes and objectives Congress sought to achieve in enacting RS-2477."
The county continued: "The State of Wyoming may not unilaterally condition the existence of an RS-2477 road in any manner which will render a Congressional grant meaningless and without effect."
Brimmer apparently disagreed with the county's assertions, although his written decision detailing his reason for deciding against the county has not yet been released.
While the county waits for the written decision, so it can decide whether to appeal the case to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, another issue remains in limbo.
The Erramouspe family is anxiously awaiting resolution of the road issue. The family has used the road for some 70 years, so that's one reason they would like to see it resolved. The other reason is that the Erramouspes are working on another deal with the BLM that the BLM refuses to move forward on until the road issue is resolved. In this other matter, progress was being made on allowing the Erramouspes to purchase 40 acres of BLM land at the ranch headquarters to resolve an illegal trespass: some of the ranch buildings are actually on BLM land rather than private land. The 40-acre sale would resolve the issue. The BLM has decided it would not complete the land sale until the road issue is resolved.
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