A road in a national forest that became a symbolic line in the dirt between the U.S. government and citizen activists in a dispute over a threatened fish is slowly being reopened.
Unauthorized road improvements have triggered a federal investigation and caused more bad blood between land managers and residents of the northeast Nevada hamlet.
“It is clearly unauthorized, illegal activity,” said Bob Vaught, supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. “Some people think they can solve problems by taking the law into their own hands and this is what they have done.”
The South Canyon Road is a narrow 1.5-mile dirt and gravel road that winds along the Jarbidge River to a primitive campground in the national forest near the town of Jarbidge. Despite concerns about potential harm to the threatened bull trout, it has been partially reconstructed, most likely over the July Fourth holiday weekend, Vaught said.
“As far as I know, no one has claimed responsibility,” Vaught told the Associated Press. “It was done in secret.”
Organizers of a citizens’ revolt that led to the partial rebuilding of the road three years ago say there’s nothing secretive — nor illegal — about it.
“The road is gradually re-establishing itself through use,” said O.Q. “Chris” Johnson, who helped spearhead the Shovel Brigade citizens movement and a July 4, 2000, rally at the remote site that drew hundreds of protesters in defiance of federal land managers.
Vaught and others said the road is re-emerging as a result of a concerted effort.
“It’s hard to tell how many people were involved,” Vaught said. “It didn’t take a lot of manpower. But it was still considerable work — probably a day or two’s effort for a number of people.”
Johnson and Elko lawyer Grant Gerber, another Shovel Brigade organizer, dismiss the assertion and said they were unaware of any organized building project.
Both said the road has evolved after a few people with rugged vehicles pushed beyond washed-out areas up the canyon. Others, seeing the tracks, followed and pushed farther.
“It’s all different groups,” Johnson said. “It’s a challenge.
“Besides that, people who are bugged at the government will go up there just to poke their finger in the Forest Service’s eye, or the Fish and Wildlife Service’s eye.”
Randi Thompson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Reno, said the road — big enough for ATV’s and smaller four-wheel drive vehicles — makes several crossings through the river, the southernmost habitat for the bull trout.
“They’re literally driving through the riverbed,” Thompson said. “They’re trashing the habitat.”
Vaught said a damage assessment is being conducted to determine if the actions amount to criminal behavior.
Katie Fite, an environmentalist with the Committee for the High Desert in Boise, Idaho, and the Utah-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness, said she came upon the road the weekend after July 4.
Rocks were moved and young cottonwood trees were run over, Fite said.
“This was not just a couple guys saying ‘lets see if we can rip and tear,’ ” she said. “They didn’t just drive through the river once or twice.”
The dispute began in 1995 when floods washed out a portion of the road. Three years later, Elko County sent a road crew to make repairs despite the Forest Service’s insistence that it couldn’t be done without harming the fish.
A legal battle ensued and the Shovel Brigade — a citizen’s group critical of the Forest Service and federal land management practices — was formed. The group got its name when thousands of shovels were donated to it by sympathizers from around the West.
Over the Fourth of July in 2000, hundreds of people converged on the tiny outpost of Jarbidge near the Nevada-Idaho line. Using long, thick ropes, they moved a boulder that blocked the road and rebuilt a 900-foot section using picks and shovels. Still, the road remained largely blocked.
The latest reclamation extends the rocky road to its original destination near a wilderness boundary.
In 2001, after more than a year of court-ordered mediation, an agreement was reached that gave Elko County a permanent right of way to the road, which the county contends it has owned all along.
Additionally, the county agreed to pay for repairs after environmental studies funded by the Forest Service were conducted to determine if such a project were feasible. That environmental study is now under way.
But environmentalists stepped in and challenged the agreement, arguing the Forest Service lacked authority to cede ownership of a U.S. road to the county.
U.S. District Judge David Hagen in Reno, after appeals to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, set aside the agreement in June.
Kristin McQueary, chief civil deputy for the Elko County district attorney’s office, said her staff is reviewing Hagen’s ruling, which likely will be discussed when the county commission meets Aug. 20 in Jarbidge.
Vaught said he still is confident the road dispute can be resolved after the environmental study is completed.
Johnson said there is no reason to wait.
“With the settlement agreement set aside, I think the county should go up there and finish the job they started,” Johnson said.
Fite says such work would be disastrous.
“Now that Jarbidge has become such a flash point — a Mecca for motor heads of a certain mind-set — if a road was rebuilt it would be impossible to keep ATVs out of the first part of the wilderness there,” she said.