A resolute group of shovel-carrying protesters has descended on the
tiny community of Jarbidge, Nev., to challenge the U.S. Forest Service
by reopening a county road the government agency intentionally closed to
vehicle access two years ago by dumping tons of rock and debris on it.
Little Jarbidge — with a population of less than 50 residents — is
hard to find on a map and miles from a major highway. But for these
volunteer shovelers, it is the only place to be on Independence Day
2000. They’ve come to Jarbidge from all parts of the country, unwavering
in their determination to reopen a one-and-a-half-mile stretch of
flood-damaged road near the town, which the
U.S. Forest Service — egged on by a powerful environmental group — closed in 1998.
|Click on map to enlarge|
Temperatures could soar over 100 degrees, and the work won’t be easy, but event organizers expect participants from all over the nation to help haul away the rubble, using only shovels and their bare hands. Most are from Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and other Western states, but caravans of participants have also arrived from as far away as New York, Maine, Florida and the Carolinas.
|U.S. Forest Service at work blocking South Canyon Road|
Enthusiasm for the two-day event has been building over the past weeks.
“It’s unbelievable what’s happening,” reports Marian McKenzie — self-described “gopher” for the
Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, the all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that is sponsoring the event that began yesterday. “You’d have to be here in the office to pick up all the e-mails, the letters and the faxes to realize how many people this is affecting. There are messages of support from all over the United States, and we’re even getting e-mails from Australia.”
Because the town is so small and out-of-the-way, the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade is headquartered in Elko, Nev., 100 miles southwest of Jarbidge on Interstate 80.
“They’re coming from just about any state where they’re having this kind of problem,” Demar Dahl, a local rancher and president of the Shovel Brigade, told WorldNetDaily late last week. “Wherever there’s a national park or [national] forest and people are being locked out of it because they aren’t allowed in with vehicles — that’s where people are coming from. They want to help us and support what we’re doing. And it’s their way of saying they want roads kept open and that they don’t want that
Roadless [Areas] Initiative of Clinton’s.”
The initiative Dahl referenced was birthed as a
memorandum the president sent to Agriculture Secretary Michael Dombeck on Oct.13, directing Dombeck to develop regulations for a program to “protect” over 40 million acres of public land — 20 percent of the total forest land in America’s national forests — from road construction and “activities that would degrade the land.” The plan would effectively place these vast acreages off-limits to all but the relatively few hikers and backpackers. Announcement of the administration’s intentions sent shock waves through those segments of the American public who use the public lands for recreation and economic activities like mining, logging and cattle grazing.
Since today’s debris-removal action is providing an opportunity for Americans to challenge the Forest Service and the administration’s Roadless Areas Initiative, Independence Day was thought to be an appropriate date to stage such a protest.
Dahl explained the task faced by the Shovel Brigade: “The Forest Service put two or three great boulders there, and piled tons and tons of dirt, rocks and torn up trees on them, and on a perfectly good road, for no reason except to block us out of the canyon. We want to take that [barrier] away.”
However, Dahl stressed that even when the barrier is removed, the road won’t be completely passable.
“The road crosses the river in several places, and those places have been washed out, too,” he said. “If we try and replace the bridges, we’d be subject to the
Clean Water Act and the
Endangered Species Act. So we’re not working on the flood area or the river itself, just the part the Forest Service arbitrarily destroyed when they went in like a bully in the schoolyard and messed things up.”
WorldNetDaily caught Dahl in a particularly upbeat mood. Word had just been received at Shovel Brigade headquarters that a federal judge in Las Vegas had denied three motions by the Justice Department for an emergency temporary restraining order enjoining Shovel Brigade leaders and participants from entering the South Canyon Road area. In a 189-page brief, the Justice Department had claimed the projected work posed a threat to the bull trout, a local fish, and violated the Clean Water Act. Potential harm to the fish was the reason the Forest Service gave for closing the road in the first place.
Judge Philip Pro, U.S. Judge for the District of Nevada since 1987, disagreed.
“The government has not met its burden that there is an imminent threat of harm to the bull trout,” Judge Pro ruled. “I find the same deficiency in regards to potential violation of the Clean Water Act.”
The judge also rejected government arguments that protesters would be trespassing because they had not obtained necessary U.S. Forest Service permits. He said he was reluctant to issue a restraining order because it came too close to infringing on First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.
“This is a great day for us,” said Dahl. “The real reason this is happening is that people in the West are just tired of people in Washington, the government, telling us … this [the road closure] is good for us.”
Trout Unlimited — a politically powerful environmental organization and a major player in the Jarbidge drama — was not pleased with the ruling.
“I find it extremely hard to believe that 5,000 shovel-wielding rebels, looking to prove something, will not disturb the river and the bull trout,” said Matt Holford, executive director of the group’s Nevada Council, in a press release. “Any mass gathering by a disorganized crowd with picks and shovels, determined to take the law into their own hands, is bound to do some damage. Typically, this canyon sees only 450 visitors even at its highest level of use.”
Dahl counters that access to the canyon will be limited since the shovelers will work in shifts and be transported to and from the work site by bus. He’s secured the cooperation of the sheriffs of three counties, and at their suggestion arranged for private security. In addition, a number of participants have volunteered for security tasks, such as helping with traffic.
As to the work itself, the work parties won’t be using mechanized equipment.
“But that’s OK,” Dahl said confidently. “We’ll have enough people with shovels to open up the closed part.”
There’ll be no lack of equipment. For six months, people from across the country have been sending shovels to Elko, as a gesture of solidarity with the people of Jarbidge and Elko County. At last count, 13,000 had been received. And in January, a 28-foot shovel was erected in front of the courthouse.
Here is a timeline of events leading up to today’s activities:
In 1995, summer floods washed out part of South Canyon Road, a county road running along the Jarbidge River in
Forest that led to several popular campsites and provided access to trailheads into the Jarbidge Wilderness. At the time, there was little question that Elko County owned the road since it had been a much-traveled route centuries before there was a Forest Service. But there were other flood-damaged roads in the area, and with more urgent repairs on the agenda, Elko County officials agreed to let the Forest Service fix South Canyon Road. This wasn’t unusual. The road had often been washed out and rebuilt over the years, and the county and Forest Service had shared maintenance responsibilities in the past.
This time it was different, however. Two years after the flood, the Forest Service had not begun the promised repairs. A legal action instigated by the Nevada Council of Trout Unlimited succeeded in getting the project put on hold for an entire year while the Forest Service studied the possible effects of road reconstruction on the bull trout, a local species of fish.
In June 1998, the Forest Service completed an environmental assessment and identified maintaining the Hillside Hiking Trail between Pine Creek and Snowslide Wilderness Portal as the “preferred alternative” to rebuilding the road. Public comments on the environmental assessment and the preferred alternative were due by August 3 of that year. The Forest Service announced to Jarbidge residents that they were not going to repair the road.
Local officials and residents were disgusted by the stalling and postponement of an otherwise routine task. After all, they reasoned, the county — not the federal government — owns the road, and its use predates the establishment of the national forest in 1908. Indeed, this view was validated the following February when a state judge ruled that the county was completely within its legal rights in reopening the road.
In July 1998, the county sent a crew to the area to reopen the road. The county workers had been on the job only a day and a half when state officials halted the work with a cease-and-desist order, citing lack of a permit to operate heavy equipment. This was a new condition. The state had never before required Elko County to have a permit to maintain county-owned roads.
According to an earlier posting on Trout Unlimited’s website, the county workers dredged 300 meters of the river and redirected the river to a new channel, causing “severe damage” to the river with their heavy equipment. The county claimed that the backhoe merely cleared away boulders that were blocking the flow and restored the river to its channel.
Trout Unlimited continued to work toward its goal, and in August 1998, the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an emergency listing of the bull trout as an endangered species, despite opposition by the Nevada Department of Environmental Quality. It was at this point that the Forest Service — in order to make certain the road stayed closed — contracted with a firm in Montana to dump tons of debris and rocks along a 900-foot stretch.
Adding insult to injury, the Forest Service sent the county a bill for over $400,000.
Disgusted by such tactics, Nevada Assemblyman John Carpenter and Elko attorney Grant Gerber decided to form a work party to repair the road without help from the Forest Service. Last October, several hundred Nevadans with a few supporters from other states went to Jarbidge, only to be stopped by a temporary restraining order issued by a federal judge. The event turned into a barbecue, with lots of rhetoric and good food, but the road barrier remained in place.
The entire matter might well have fizzled at that point, but in Eureka, Mont., near the Canadian border, sawmill owner James Hurst had been having his own problems with the Forest Service. Reading about the forced cancellation of the road project, he was struck by similarities between what was happening at Jarbidge and in Montana.
“To keep our operation going, we’ve been forced to purchase logs from as far away as 500 miles, and within 15 miles of our operation there is dead and dying timber,” Hurst explained to WorldNetDaily. “There’s plenty of resources available to keep our mill and several others in the Kootenai National Forest going, but due to Clinton and Gore’s policy and the Endangered Species Act, we’re prevented from cleaning up the fire hazards in these forests. By the same token, people are being put out of work.”
Hurst fears that if these policies continue, he’ll have to close his mill and lay off 150 employees. He detailed his concerns at a Forestry Summit called by U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, D-Mont., in December.
“I was the last speaker of the non-government groups,” Hurst recalled. “I laid out the facts — how Montana is rich in resources, but 48th in per capita income. We’re right down there with Mississippi. We used to be called the Treasure State. But since 1994, Montana has led the entire 50 states in the rate of increase in poverty. What it appears the administration and environmentalists want is for Montana to be set aside as a national monument or national park.”
Hurst said his remarks were well received, but he felt a follow-up was necessary to keep the message out front. The failed effort at Jarbidge gave him an idea.
“I was reading the paper, and there was a picture of 89-year-old Helen Wilson, who’s lived all her life in Jarbidge. She talked about the road closure — ‘Those young Forest Service officials, they make me so mad I could just spank ‘em,’ she said. And I thought, BINGO. We’ve got a road closed. Can we tie part of the West together here? Those people had tried to open that road with shovels, but were stopped. I realized that what was going on there was what was going on here in Eureka — but they don’t know we’re having those same problems, and we don’t know about theirs.”
Hurst contacted the Elko County commissioners and offered to send a few shovels as a symbol of support. They were “really enthused” about the idea, he said. So were others. Word of the shovel project went out across the Internet. People from Oregon, California, Wyoming, Washington and other Western states began sending shovels to the Elko County commissioners in a show of solidarity.
A parade was planned for late January.
Hurst and his friends from Idaho and Montana gathered 8,500 shovels within a month and hauled them down to Elko for what turned out to be biggest parade in the history of the town.
“It was on January 29, when there’s usually two feet of snow and the temperature down around zero. But that day, it was 45 degrees, bright sunshine and no snow,” said Hurst.
There were about 4,000 people involved in the four-and-a-half-mile-long parade.
Hurst said he’s observed that following the parade, there has been an increase in political activism, at least in Montana and probably elsewhere.
“I thought things might die off after the parade, but they’ve increased,” he said. “There was a rally [recently] in Missoula, Mont., and 3,000 people showed up to protest Clinton’s Roadless Initiative and the Forest Service’s
roadless policy. We’re a thinly populated state, and it was Wednesday, a workday, but 3,000 people were there to protest the initiative.”
Hurst said he plans to be at the two-day event near Jarbidge, though he won’t be able to stay through the Fourth. “I’m going down to Jarbidge, but only for one day — it’s a bad time for me to go there, but I feel it’s a commitment I must keep.”
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