RENO, Nev. - State and federal officials in Nevada hope to avoid violence this weekend when hundreds of citizens armed with pick axes and shovels try to retake a road in a national forest that has been kept closed to help save a threatened fish.
A Nevada assemblyman says he'll lead 500 to 1,000 people to the Jarbidge River near the Idaho border to rebuild the 1.5-mile, washed-out dirt road, which they claim has belonged to Elko County for more than a century.
''I'm afraid the potential for an explosive confrontation is high,'' said U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, who met with citizens in Elko a month ago.
Justice Department officials would not say how they intend to respond if the volunteers break the law by reconstructing the road without the proper state and federal permits. But the Forest Service and scientists who helped put the bull trout on the threatened list plan to heed warnings to stay away.
''We certainly do not want to incite any violence,'' Gloria Flora, supervisor of the Humboldt Toiyabe-National Forest, said Tuesday. ''We are concerned for the safety of our employees.''
Leading the revolt is Republican Assemblyman John Carpenter, a rancher and real estate business owner, and O.Q. ''Chris'' Johnson, chairman of the Elko County Republican Central Committee. Carpenter said he received calls of support from all over the West.
''If they stop people, they'll never hear the end of it,'' Carpenter said. ''This is an absolute peaceful work party. We don't advocate violence and never will.''
Only about 30 people live year-round in Jarbidge, an historic mining town in a rugged mountain canyon so remote that most Nevadans can't get there without driving north into the Idaho wilderness and then back south into Nevada.
Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Pappa asked Elko County officials to help stop the rebellion. But Sheriff Neil Harris, who considers the project an act of civil disobedience, has said only that he will help keep the peace.
''To send a small contingent of federal law enforcement up there to issue citations or make arrests could cause the thing to become somewhat violent,'' Harris said.
''I'm sure if their boss back in Washington, D.C., tells them they have to go write tickets, that's what they will do,'' the sheriff said. ''That's when something is going to happen and I'm afraid somebody is going to get hurt.''
Federal officials have backed off from armed confrontations in similar incidents in Nevada in past years, going to court instead. One such battle, over a road in the desert that was bulldozed by a Nye County Commissioner, was ultimately resolved when the Forest Service agreed to share jurisdiction over the property.
''In all these situations you have to be careful. There is always a danger,'' said Howard Zlotnick, first assistant U.S. attorney in Las Vegas. ''The Forest Service and the government are going to exercise prudence on this thing. We hope cooler heads prevail and there is no damage.''
State wildlife agents and local scientists also plan to avoid a confrontation, but they are not at all happy about the rebuilding plan, even though the volunteers intend to work by hand or with horse-drawn equipment to minimize the damage.
''This is a political statement by these Constitutionalists,'' said Matt Holford, chairman of Trout Unlimited's Nevada Council, referring to a group that supports states' rights over the federal government. ''It has nothing to do with the road. The first rain will send the dirt into the river and the bull trout are spawning now.''
The dispute involves a section of South Canyon Road, which leads to a campground and outhouse in the national forest.
A flood destroyed the road in June 1995, and the Forest Service decided not to rebuild it because eroding soil could threaten the trout.
A county bulldozer crew began reconstructing the road in July 1998 anyway - until Nevada's environmental agency ordered them to stop. A month later, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt ordered the bull trout protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the state proposed a $2,000 fine for failing to secure the proper permits.
As the county fights the state punishment in court, the Justice Department has threatened to sue to recoup $400,000 the Forest Service spent to obliterate the county's repair work. Fines for Clean Water Act violations could reach into the millions of dollars.
Flora said this weekend's work project is illegal and will further jeopardize the survival of the fish.
''I'm shocked and appalled that any individual, particularly a state assemblyman and the county chairman of the Republican Party, would choose to undertake an illegal action against essentially the American people,'' Flora said Tuesday. ''It is going to be the aquatic environment and the fish who live in that environment who are going to suffer.''