Forest Service intends to limit access to disputed road

RENO - Upping the ante in a fight over property rights, the Forest Service intends to cut off vehicle access to a dirt road in remote Elko County and undo the work of citizens who reopened part of the road near Jarbidge on the Fourth of July.

In new motions filed here in U.S. District Court, Justice Department lawyers also asked a judge to shelve a proposed mediation settlement with Elko County and others and allow the simmering feud to proceed in court.

Forest Service officials on Thursday refused to comment on specific plans to reclose the disputed road on national forest land near the Nevada-Idaho border.

''No determination or decision has been made as to the next step that the agency will take. Right now they're considering their options,'' Forest Service spokeswoman Christie Kalkowski said.

''We are in no way trying to restrict hiking,'' she stressed. ''That's a definite use we promote.''

Regional Forester Jack Blackwell, Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest Supervisor Bob Vaught and Bob Williams, Nevada supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, plan to survey the site next week with agency biologists.

''I think it's improper for them to close roads without hearings,'' said Elko lawyer Grant Gerber, a key player in the dispute.

''I'm disappointed in my government that they're walking away from the table.''

A portion of the South Canyon Road washed out in a flood in 1995. The Forest Service concluded the road couldn't be rebuilt without harming bull trout, a threatened species that lives in the adjacent Jarbidge River.

Elko County, which claims it owns the road, started repair work three years ago but stopped a day later when ordered to do so by state and federal officials.

The Justice Department sued the county, accusing it of trespassing and violating the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. But U.S. District Judge David Hagen put the suit on hold this spring and ordered all sides into mediation.

Those talks produced a proposed agreement that would allow the road to be rebuilt only if studies concluded it can be done without harming the fish or causing other environmental damage. The deal also would absolve the county of potential fines that could run into the millions of dollars.

But Elko County has yet to sign the pact, and Justice Department lawyers warned a month ago they were losing patience.

''Each day that passes without resolution ... creates a risk of damage to and degradation of the resources in the South Canyon area,'' said the government's new motion said.

U.S. Attorney Kathryn Landreth of Las Vegas said in the motion she was serving notice to Judge Hagen that the government ''intends to undertake the process ... to restrict access to the South Canyon Road and to repair, restore and stabilize the area disturbed by Shovel Brigade on July 3 and 4, 2000.''

Elko commissioners scheduled a special meeting next Wednesday to discuss the government's latest salvo.

Last October, a citizens group led by Gerber, state Assemblyman John Carpenter and Elko County Republican Party Chairman O.Q. ''Chris'' Johnson planned to reclaim the road but were blocked by a court injunction.

Another group, the Shovel Brigade, took up the cause. On July 4, several hundred people from around the West and as far away as Rhode Island rebuilt a section of the road with picks and shovels and removed a huge boulder the Forest Service had used to block access.

On Aug. 4, the government sued the Shovel Brigade for trespassing, claiming it lacked proper permits for the road work.


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