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California and the West

Dispute Over Remote Nevada Road Settled

Environment: U.S. accepts county control of the route, but the EPA will rule on improvements. The issue ignited anti-Washington fervor.


LAS VEGAS — The rebellious, shovel-wielding residents of rugged northern Nevada have finally wrested control of a barely recognizable forest road from the federal government.

Settlement of the controversy just outside Jarbidge--population 30--resolves years of local seething at Washington. The anger was illustrated last July 4, when hundreds of men, facing possible arrest for trespassing on federal land, removed a huge boulder that the U.S. Forest Service had used to block access to the vehicle trail, deep inside Humboldt National Forest.

Representatives of both sides have settled their differences, and assuming--as everyone does--that official signatures are secured, the accord will go to a federal magistrate in Reno next month for final blessing.

The agreement doesn't offer a complete victory to the residents of Elko County in northeastern Nevada, but officials there are claiming it nonetheless.

According to the resolution, the Forest Service will not contest the claim by Elko County that South Canyon Road--a name much grander than its function suggests--existed long before the arrival of Uncle Sam and that therefore the county, not the federal government, can control its use.

County officials, citing old maps and other historical documents, showed that the road was used by miners, ranchers and others in the 19th century, and thus was in the control of local citizens before 1906, when the U.S. Forest Service claimed the road for itself.

The Forest Service's blockage of the road infuriated locals, who said the right of way was needed to provide fire protection and access to the forest by outdoor enthusiasts. On that count, the settlement gives a victory to the county--but it won't be able to capitalize on that any time soon.

For now, the short segment of road barely goes anywhere, having been washed out in a 1995 flood that engorged the Jarbidge River. And if the county wants to improve it so it can carry vehicular traffic 1 1/2 miles to a trail head, the county will have to pay for the improvements.

Furthermore--on an issue on which the federal government did not budge--improvements will have to be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that no harm is done to the forest habitat or the river, which is home to a small population of endangered bull trout.

Elko County also agreed to spend $150,000 to improve the main stretch of the gravel road, which runs between Jarbidge and the Idaho border, about 10 miles to the north, to protect the river that runs alongside it and to spend $50,000 more on river improvements.

Those were small concessions, some officials said, to ensure local control of South Canyon Road.

"We were being bullied for years by the feds, but they found out we could push back just as hard," said John Carpenter, a local rancher and member of the Nevada Assembly. He also was a leader of the "Jarbidge Shovel Brigade," a group that grew hundreds strong last summer, using donated shovels to clear the old road.

Another brigade leader, Demar Dahl, said: "This is a great victory for the people of the West. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of roads like this one that are currently controlled by the federal government but really belong to the local counties. Who controls access controls the use of the land."

Nolan Lloyd, chairman of the Elko County Commission, said he believed that the federal government relented on control of the road "because we have a new administration. Things changed significantly once the election was over. I think having a Republican president helped us a lot."

In Las Vegas, Assistant U.S. Atty. Blaine Welch said he could not comment on whether he was given different marching orders with the change of administrations.

The most important aspect of the settlement, Welch said, is that no matter who controls the road, improvements to it must be approved by the EPA.

The Forest Service is pleased with the settlement because it launches a cooperative effort between county and federal agencies to improve the river's habitat, said its spokeswoman in Elko, Erin O'Connor.

But nothing about the agreement, she said, should suggest that the Department of Agriculture is prepared to give up other forest roads to local control.

Jay Watson, the California-Nevada director of the Wilderness Society, said he was worried that the Jarbidge agreement might be a precedent, with more counties now seeking control of federal wilderness roads.

"A lot of these so-called roads may have been created by the passage of one or two vehicles. They may be little more than some tire tracks," he said. "And loss of these roads [by federal agencies] could very well lead to the carving up of the landscape.

"I'd like to think that the Jarbidge settlement doesn't point to a new interpretation of what is a road in the West," he said. "We'll have to watch this very carefully."

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