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County of Inyo v. Department of the Interior

June 5, 2012



This is an action by plaintiff County of Inyo ("Plaintiff") to quiet title to rights of way that lie inside federal land in the vicinity of Death Valley National Park, near the California-Nevada border. The complaint filed on October 25, 2006, listed four roads or segments of roads as being the subject of Plaintiff's quiet title action. Following motions to dismiss based on applicable statutes of limitations, and following stipulated amendments and corrections, the only right of way remaining in contention in this action is a short segment of alleged road located in the northern end of Death Valley called "Last Chance Road."


Essentially all material facts necessary to the court's decision have been stipulated by the parties. Document # 91, filed on August 20, 2010, sets forth 98 stipulated facts and appends maps and deposition testimony in support of the facts. For purposes of this decision, the court will rely on a relatively smaller subset of the stipulated facts which the court summarizes as follows.

On July 26, 1866, Congress passed "An Act Granting Right of Way to Ditch and Canal Owners Over The Public Lands and For Other Purposes," Ch. 262, 14 Stat. 251, 253 (commonly referred to as the Mining Act of 1866). Section 8 of the Act was codified in 1873 in the Revised Statutes as section 2477 upon publication of the Revised Statutes. The statue is commonly referred to as "R.S. 2477" and was later recodified in 1938 as 43 U.S.C. § 932. R.S. 2477 provides in its entirety: "The right-of-way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted." R.S. 2477 was repealed in 1976.

On November 26, 1934, an executive order was signed pursuant to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 which temporarily withdrew all the vacant unreserved and unappropriated public land in California in order to subject the lands to categorization and determination of most appropriate use, including conservation and subject to rights existing at that time. The Secretary of the Department of the Interior was authorized to classify the withdrawn lands and to open the lands or not in accordance with the classification determined. With regard to the lands underlying the Last Chance Road, the Secretary did not exercise authority to classify the lands until 1967 at which time the lands were classified and opened for multiple uses. The parties appear to agree that the upshot of the withdrawal of the lands in 1934 removed the land underlying Last Chance Road from the category of "lands not reserved for public uses" from 1934 until 1967. On October 21, 1976, Congress enacted the Federal Land Policy and Management ACT ("FLPMA"), which repealed R.S. 2477 and designated the lands underlying the claimed Last Chance Road as part of the California Desert Conservation Area.

On October 31, 1994, the lands underlying the claimed Last Chance Road were placed under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and designated as wilderness pursuant to the California Desert Protection Act, 16 U.S.C. § 410aaa et seq. The parties agree that certain roads existing at that time were excluded from the designation as wilderness area. It appears that it is also agreed that the portion of Last Chance Road that is at issue in the instant motions for summary judgment was not among the roads or rights of way that were specifically excluded from wilderness designation in 1994. In 1995 the National Park Service placed signs prohibiting motorized travel on roads or rights of way not excluded from wilderness area designation, including the portion of Last Chance Road at issue in this action.

Plaintiff's claim of entitlement under R.S. 2477 stems from actions taken by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors on March 1, 1948, when they adopted Resolutions 48-8 and 48-9 which established identified certain roads as county roads. The resolutions did not name the roads or disclose their locations directly within the resolutions; rather, the Resolutions refer to attached maps of the County system of primary and secondary roads, amendments and revisions to the County road register, an official map of the primary road system of the County, and a set of official route descriptions of the roads in the County's primary road system." Doc. # 91 at ¶ 17. The County has not been able to locate either the referenced maps or the referenced route descriptions. Although the matter is not crucial to the court's analysis, the court notes there remains some degree of controversy whether other documents produced by Plaintiff identify a segment corresponding to what Plaintiff contends is Last Chance Road, whether the documents so identifying Last Chance Road were intended as official registries of County roads, and whether the "Last Chance Road" identified on the documents was ever actually incorporated by an action of the Board of Supervisors into the County system of roads.

While the parties generally dispute whether Plaintiff has adequately demonstrated that Last Chance Road was, in fact, placed into Inyo County's Registry of Roads by virtue of the actions of the Board of Supervisors in 1948, the parties have agreed as to the existence of a number of maps that indicate a feature called Last Chance Road and generally indicate its whereabouts. The maps most referred to by the parties are provided, for purposes of the present cross-motions, at Part Two of Exhibit 2 of exhibits appended to the Opposition of Defendant Intervenor, Center for Biological Diversity. Chronologically, the first of the referenced maps is the "Lida" map, dated 1913, Doc. # 94-3 at 3; the "Magruder Mountain" map, dated 1957, Doc. # 94-3 at 5; the "Last Chance Range" map, dated 1985, Doc. 94-4 at 3; and the "Last Chance Mountain" map, dated 1987, Doc. # 94-4 at 5. Of these, the Magruder Mountain map and the Last Chance Mountain map appear to depict best the feature the parties refer to as Last Chance Road. All the maps depict a road called "Willow Spring Road*fn1 " running roughly east to west across the Last Chance Mountain Range, which forms the northwest boundary of Death Valley. At approximately the midpoint of its traverse across the Last Chance Mountain Range, Willow Spring Road makes a 90-degree turn toward the northwest. At the apex of this turn, the Magruder Mountain map and the Last Chance Mountain map show clearly a line denoting a road proceeding for a short distance southeasterly from its origin on Willow Spring Road for about one-half mile ending at what appears to be a deep drop-off into Last Chance Canyon. Whether the parties agree that the Last Chance Road was properly adopted, described or demarcated, it appears that the maps indicate at least the general location of the feature called Last Chance Road.

As between the various maps, it appears that the feature called Last Chance Road has varied somewhat as to path and as to point of termination. The 1913 Lida map appears to show Last Chance Road ending at a point somewhat south east of the other maps and appears to show the road possibly continuing as a foot path down into Last Chance Canyon. Although some maps show the continuation of a road, trail or path from a point on the rim of the canyon south down the canyon wall and into the bottom of Last Chance Canyon, the parties seem to agree that vehicular passage beyond the rim overlooking Last Chance Canyon is and would have been impossible based on current observations of the terrain. See Parties' Stipulated Undisputed Facts, Doc. # 91 at ¶¶ 63 to 65. The Parties' Stipulated Undisputed Facts states that Plaintiff "claims a right of way over the route the County asserts currently exists on the ground and which the County believes is indicated in the 1987 Last Chance Mountain Map." Doc. # 91 at ¶62. The court also notes that what is not at issue here is the road that approaches Last Chance Spring from the south or the road that appears to go up the eastern reach of Last Chance Canyon and then turns east up Copper Canyon. The court also notes that on the 1987 Last Chance Mountain Map, the segment of road at issue is marked with the designation "4WD."

In addition to the above mentioned topographical maps, Defendant Intervenors submitted a number of areal photographs that show the bend in Willow Springs Road where the segment of Last Chance Road is supposed to originate. See Doc. # 94-5 at pp. 6-11. These photographs, along with the various other maps and route descriptions are referenced in the Parties' Stipulated Undisputed Facts to underscore what appears to be an undisputed fact that the description of the route taken by Last Chance Road on the ground has varied over time. Whether the route has remained constant and the depictions of it on maps has changed, or the route itself has changed over time is not established by the evidence at hand. Plaintiff describes the course of the road claimed in this action as following from the point of departure on Willow Springs Road south along a wash for about a quarter mile then proceeding uphill generally to the rim of Last Chance Canyon. Plaintiff admits that the claimed road now terminates at a point west and somewhat south of the point of its termination in the past.

Of some importance to the court's analysis, the Parties' Stipulated List of Undisputed Facts lists a number of facts under the heading "Alleged County Construction and Maintenance," Doc. # 91 at ¶¶ 70 - 91, from which the court may reasonably infer three important facts. The first is the observation that very few people, perhaps only one person, have personal knowledge of the County's involvement with the subject segment of Last Chance Road by having actually provided on-the-ground grading or maintenance. The parties agree that the County has no written official records to indicate that "the claimed Last Chance Road was mechanically constructed." Id. at 67. Nor does the County have written records of when or whether the Last Chance Road was "mechanically maintained." Id. at 69. The second fact that may be inferred is that the single individual available to Plaintiff who had or may have had personal on-the-ground experience with any maintenance work on Last Chance Road has recollections of activities that are at best spotty with regard to what activities were actually undertaken and when and where the activities may have been undertaken. Plaintiff contends that there remains to this day physical indications of the existence of at least portions of a road corresponding to the claimed route.

Third, and perhaps most significant for the court's purposes, the County's sole employee who claims to have participated in road grading on the Last Chance Road segment in question could not recall that the path he followed during an on-site deposition in 2010 was the same as the path that he recalled grading, nor was he able to identify features, such as berms or windrows that were conclusively the result of road maintenance operations. Another County Employee, Mr. Pederson, was unable to point to any features in the area covered in the on-sight Deposition as definitely signifying mechanical construction or maintenance, nor did the Roads Foreman for Death Valley National Park find "signs of mechanical construction or maintenance at any location along the claimed Last Chance Road." Doc. # 91 at ¶ 91. The only use of the claimed Last Chance Road actually known to anyone is the occasional use at some time in the past by hunters. Id. at ¶ 98.


The complaint to quiet title was filed by Plaintiff on October 26, 2006. The court subsequently granted the motion to intervene by California Wilderness Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Inyo , Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society on June 14, 2007. Motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction were filed by Department of the Interior and Intervenors (collectively, Defendants) on May 9, 2008. The May 9 Motions were based primarily on issue of whether Plaintiff's claims to quiet title were time barred. The court issued an order on Defendants' motions to dismiss on August 11, 2008, and subsequently revised and amended the order twice to correct errors in the judgment that were stipulated to by all parties. Plaintiff filed its motion for summary judgment on September 9, 2010; Federal Defendant National Park Service filed its cross-motion for summary judgment on October 18, 2010. As previously noted, the sole remaining claim to quiet title pertains to the above-described segment of Last Chance Road. The court granted Defendants' request for leave to Take Additional Depositions on December 13, 2010, and continued deadlines for further briefing on the cross-motions for summary judgment accordingly. Briefing on the instant cross-motions for summary judgment was completed on October 6, 2011.


Summary judgment is appropriate when it is demonstrated that there exists no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); Poller v. Columbia Broadcast System, 368 U.S. 464, 467 (1962); Jung v. FMC Corp., 755 F.2d 708, 710 (9th ...

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