If a one’s home is one’s castle, should off-road vehicles be allowed on the premises? According to Christopher Ketcham’s recent article in Mother Jones, an old federal law created during the Civil War era may be the answer to that question.

Ketcham’s article focuses on Revised Statue 2477, a law passed in 1866 for the purpose of building the nation’s highway system during a historical period of Western expansion. Because of R.S. 2477, thousands of miles of highways were constructed. Although it seems as if this law was meant for a different era, Ketcham writes how R.S. 2477 is still wielding influence in the beltway’s decision making process in regards to public land.

Ketcham writes:

In a sweeping new interpretation embraced by the Bush administration, counties across the West have argued that RS 2477 allows them to claim as “highways” thousands of paths, trails, and wagon tracks, even on private property and inside national parks and wilderness areas. If the counties succeed in establishing their reading of the statute as legal precedent, warns SUWA [Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance] executive director Scott Groene, it could “open the door to motorized use of nearly all of America’s public lands.”

Under this law, numerous automobile lobbying organizations, such as the Blue Ribbon Coalition, have used RS 2477 to disqualify lands designated as wilderness, and have even gone so far as to apply the law in cases where land is owned by private citizens. Ketcham explains how this happened in the case of Kane County, Utah ranchers Ron and Jana Smith, who came home one day and found that their property was broken into by Kane County officials without any notice. The county officials tore down the couple’s private property signs and scattered RS 2477 claims across their land.

Their nightmarish ordeal is explained:

The Smiths tried to reason with Kane County. They asked for a map of the RS 2477 roads the county had identified on their land, and for proof that the roads were covered by the statute. Their requests were ignored, they say, and the sheriff called to warn them that the fences they’d put back up across the alleged roads would be cut down. Jeepers ran right over the fences in any case, and Ron spent a lot of time chasing off trespassers who had been told by Kane County that the trails were open and legal.

In the end, the Smiths sued the county, forcing officials to identify “highways” that, according to Jana, “began nowhere, went nowhere, ended nowhere, provided access to nothing.” In court the couple presented the county attorney with the limited access deed they had received when they purchased the property (and had shown the county years before), which clearly stipulated that the land was immune from RS 2477 claims. Within 30 minutes the county attorney dropped the matter, but it took another year to get the three-man county commission to vote to abandon the claim on the couple’s property.