Justice Department: Delay in road closure harming bull trout

RENO, Nev. - Worried about increasing harm to the threatened bull trout, Justice Department lawyers are asking a judge to expedite their request to close motorized access to part of a national forest road in Elko County.

Forest Service officials told U.S. District Judge David Hagen in Reno this week the dispute over jurisdiction of the South Canyon Road near Jarbidge has left the dirt road in an unsafe condition.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lois Schiffer and U.S. Attorney Kathryn Landreth of Las Vegas said the federal government remains open to further negotiations. But, in new legal filings, they argued court-ordered mediation already has cost federal taxpayers at least $100,000 with no resolution in sight.

''Each day that passes without resolution ... allows damaged areas to further degrade and unacceptable additional impacts to continue unchecked,'' they wrote in the request Tuesday for expedited action.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the bull trout an endangered species on an emergency basis in 1998, then reduced the listing to threatened last year. The Forest Service, citing possible effects on the fish, backed off its original plans to reconstruct a section of the South Canyon Road that washed out in a 1995 flood.

The result has been sometimes heated opposition from county commissioners and local citizens who maintain the road was there before the Humboldt National Forest was established in the early 1900s and therefore is outside the jurisdiction of the Forest Service.

Hundreds of protesters dubbed the ''Shovel Brigade'' converged on the road along the Jarbidge River July 3-4 to rebuild a stretch of the road and remove large boulders the Forest Service had set up to block vehicles from getting near the bull trout habitat.

The Forest Service asked Judge Hagen earlier this summer to allow the agency to again close off the road, restricting access about one-quarter mile upstream from where the Shovel Brigade worked in July.

State Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, a key player in the battle with the feds, said he expects the Forest Service will face a lawsuit if it goes through with plans to cut off access to the road.

''I think it's a lot of bull,'' Carpenter said Wednesday.

''When they try to close that road, they are trespassing on a county road. They ought to just leave this road alone until is settled in mediation,'' he said.

But Schiffer, assistant U.S. attorney for environment and natural resources, and Landreth said in the new filings this week they are concerned about ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

''The longer the case is delayed, the greater the opportunity for harm to the resource from citizens groups, like Shovel Brigade, which flout federal law by attempting to re-establish a road in the South Canyon area without seeking federal authorization,'' they said.

The government lawyers said now that the Shovel Brigade has reopened the road to motorized vehicles, ''travel over time will re-establish the road and will cause - and indeed is causing - damage to the fish habitat from repeated stream crossings.''

Bob Williams, Nevada supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it is especially important to protect the river during the fall spawning season.

''Water levels are very low and vehicles can easily damage fish habitat and create conditions that restrict fish movements and disrupt spawning,'' he said.

Bob Vaught, supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest based in Sparks, said the section of washed out road drops suddenly into the river, is unstable in places and has no turn-around areas.

''This makes travel potentially unsafe for motorized vehicles,'' Vaught said.

''As hunting season begins and rain and snow falls, the potential for erosion will increase and only add to the difficulty of vehicles turning around and the instability of the area.''

Hagen ordered mediation early this year and the U.S. government proposed a settlement directing the Forest Service to look for options for public access while still protecting the trout.

Elko County is still considering the settlement offer. But Landreth and Schiffer said the offer has been on the table for more than two months.

''The United States did not agree to wait indefinitely for a decision,'' they said.


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