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Death Valley road to stay closed to public

June 07, 2012|By Louis Sahagun
  • A photo of "Last Chance Road," a disused road on the border of Death Valley National Park. Inyo County wanted to open the road to public use, but a judge ruled Wednesday that the road was to remained closed.
A photo of "Last Chance Road," a disused road on the border of… (Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice )

Inyo County has lost a six-year legal battle for control of “Last Chance Road,” an alleged public highway that starts in a desert wash and peters out at several spots halfway up a small hill on Death Valley National Park’s northern edge.

The county had sought to open the road for public use, but environmentalists had fought to keep it closed.

“This is a great ruling for Death Valley National Park and the wildlife that calls it home,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice. “It means that an alleged road through federal wilderness will remain closed to vehicles.”

U.S. District Court Judge Anthony W. Ishii ruled Wednesday that the county failed to prove the half-mile sliver of wilderness terrain was established under a Civil War-era right-of-way law known as R.S. 2477.

Although the law was repealed more than four decades ago, routes established before then were allowed under a grandfather clause.

The county claimed Last Chance Road is such a route. However, the county was unable to locate official descriptions of the segment, or records showing it had been mechanically maintained. The only person known to have worked on it was unable to identify key features such as berms that were the result of maintenance operations.

“The only ‘use’ of Last Chance Road that can be verified on the basis of currently-available information is use by deer hunters,” Ishii said in his ruling. “Even within that category, there is no indication the route was used for ‘travel’ in the normal sense.”

Last Chance Road was one of four alleged “highways” totaling roughly 20 miles the county sought to open for public use in a lawsuit filed in 2006. Ishii previously dismissed the other three claims because the county failed to file them on time.

Six conservation groups – the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, the California Wilderness Coalition, the National Parks Conservation Assn., the Center for Biological Diversity and the Friends of Inyo – represented by the nonprofit group Earthjustice, intervened on behalf of the National Park Service in the case.

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