When 1,500 shovel-carrying protesters from a dozen states descended
on the tiny northern Nevada town of Jarbidge for Independence Day, it
took them just two days — working in shifts of a few hundred at a time
— to remove the 900-foot-long log-and-dirt barrier the

U.S. Forest
had constructed in 1998 to block a rural dirt road from vehicle access.

Their mission accomplished, the next question was what to do with the thousands of “shovels of solidarity” people around the country had sent to the city of Elko, Nev., to show support for the local community in its opposition to Forest Service policies, particularly road closings. As reported by

8,500 shovels were featured in a huge parade in Elko in January — a prelude to their use in the later roadblock removal. The Elko County commissioners donated the shovels to the

Jarbidge Shovel Brigade,
an all-volunteer group formed to coordinate the reopening of the road.

For J. Zane Walley — who handles public relations for the Paragon Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Alamogordo, N.M. — only one thing makes sense: Bring the shovels cross country to the heartland of America.

“It’s time that we take those shovels east,” says Walley. “Maybe we can make Americans aware that what’s been going on here in the West — what’s being called the War on the West — is happening everywhere, in every state in this country.”

The board of the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade agrees, and on Aug. 24, a convoy carrying thousands of the shovels will leave Elko and head east along Interstate 80 in a 2,000-mile, 10-day journey through eight states to London, Ohio, where a massive property-rights rally will be held Sept. 2 to protest efforts by the Fish and Wildlife Service to create a wildlife refuge.

London — a small town 25 miles west of the state capital of Columbus — is in the heart of a farming area defined by two meandering waterways — Big Darby Creek and its tributary Little Darby Creek, both of them designated state and national scenic rivers.

For nearly two years, beleaguered farmers and residents of London have been engaged in David-and-Goliath battle with the powerful

Fish and Wildlife Service,
which has big plans to create a 50,000-acre federal wildlife refuge along Little Darby Creek. A goal of the refuge would be to restore prairie grassland to the area to be a home for endangered migratory birds. Fish, too, would benefit under stream restoration programs. The government agency is supported in its effort by the Nature Conservancy, the Columbus Audubon Society, the Ohio Environmental Council and the Columbus Foundation.

Residents and local elected officials in the targeted area fear that the new designation will spell eventual forced sales of homes and loss of valuable farmland, despite assurances to the contrary by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Farmer Paul Black’s barn tells what he thinks of the refuge plan.

Situated just north of Interstate 70, approximately midway between the cities of Dayton and Columbus, much of the land in the proposed Little Darby Creek National Wildlife Refuge is owned by sixth-generation farmers, many of them descendants of the Amish and Mennonite families who helped settle the area nearly 200 years ago.

“If you look down the pike 30 years, the farms will not be gone,” predicts Julie Smithson, 47, founder and spokesperson of

Stewards of
the Darby
— one of several local citizen groups formed in opposition to the proposal.

“But they (the Fish and Wildlife Service) are so patient; they take their time,” she said wistfully. “They admit their ‘vision’ — that’s their term — their vision is 30 years. We feel like wounded animals with vultures circling overhead, just waiting.”

Map of study area. Click here to enlarge.

Smithson has personal reasons for concern. A professional truck driver, she also raises Arabian horses on land she rents from a local farmer. She would like to do so in the future and has recently resigned from her job to devote all her time, energy and resources to fighting the refuge designation. “This is where my roots have been for 15 years, and this is a pretty good place to make a stand for property rights,” she said. “I’ve got Viking blood in me, and it’s coming out good now.”

Depending on which alternative proposal is eventually chosen, approximately 23,000 acres in Madison and Union counties would be purchased by the Fish and Wildlife Service as a wildlife refuge, ostensibly in accordance with a “willing seller, willing buyer” policy. Development rights for an additional 26,400 acres of agricultural land would be bought by the agency or some group like

The Nature
as a “Watershed Conservation Area” — a new type of designation.

The second area would make it an unusual refuge, explains Jan Burkey with the

Nature Conservancy’s Ohio Chapter,
which has worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service developing the plan.

Burkey said Fish and Wildlife is looking at “several alternatives,” described in the

Draft Environmental Impact Statement,
released in July.

“The preferred alternative is 22,783 acres that would be the Voluntary Purchase Area,” she said. “That would be your typical wildlife refuge. But this other area of 26,419 acres — the one they’re calling the Watershed Conservation Area — incorporates farmland, and that’s definitely a new thing for the Fish and Wildlife Service to do.

“They respect that farming has been part of that community for 200 years, so they incorporated that component into this so that people could stay if they wanted,” she added.

It’s not that the land has been degraded. In fact, proponents of the plan applaud the care bestowed on it by the farmers. The designation is being sought to preserve what’s there now.

“We’re looking to protect the watershed, period,” said Burkey. “According to calculations, development is headed out that way, and unless the communities do something with zoning or something, it will overtake them.”

Although plans for a refuge along the Little Darby had been quietly brewing in some quarters for over a decade, most residents — including elected county officials — knew nothing about it until recently.

Smithson says she and her neighbors were “totally shocked,” when they learned of the pending designation in January 1999.

“A couple of announcements had been published in late 1997,” she recalls. “But they were placed in such a way in the paper that no one would see them unless you read every word in the paper front to back. So hardly anybody knew.”

Smithson noted that the Watershed Conservation Area was originally dubbed the Farmland Preservation Area — a label Stewards of the Darby members and allies believe was applied to assuage fears of land condemnation.

“Originally Fish and Wildlife admitted wanting 50,000 acres,” Smithson said, adding that she and her neighbors “made such a fuss that between January and August of last year, it became apparent to them that they weren’t going to get this without a battle, so they decided to pull in their horns temporarily. In August (1999), they released a split program that contained what they called a voluntary acquisition area and a Farmland Preservation Area, which was really just going to be their buffer zone that they’d get later.

“In July, they released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and the Farmland Preservation Area has mysteriously evaporated,” she said. “Now it’s called the Watershed Protection Area. We knew the other was temporary, we just didn’t know how long it would be before they actually came back and showed their true colors,” she observed.

Burkey and other supporters of the plan say concerns about eminent domain and land-use restrictions are blown out of proportion.

“Initially, there was a lot of misunderstanding about what Fish and Wildlife was proposing,” Burkey said. “But in the Draft EIS, they’ve answered a lot of the concerns. The farm community people — they’ll have the right to retain all privileges and responsibilities of private ownership. They’ll have the right to sell their land to anyone of their choice if they ever choose to sell — or if they don’t choose to sell. It’s totally up to them. If they choose to sell, they’d receive fair market value for their property. And if they’re in the farmland preservation component, they could farm but could sell their development rights, which means the land couldn’t be used for development in the years to come.”

William Hegge, Fish and Wildlife project director for the Little Darby National Wildlife Refuge, reinforced Burkey’s remarks concerning eminent domain, voluntary sales and the effect refuge designation would have on the farming communities.

“There’s a Voluntary Purchase Area of about 22,000 acres, where we would go in and ask people if they want to sell — it’d be willing seller, willing buyer — where we’d be interested in fee-simple interest,” Hegge said. “For the 26,000-acre Watershed Preservation Area, we’re only interested in buying easements. That’s voluntary as well.

“Once the boundary [of the refuge] is established, nothing changes,” he promised. “People would go about their daily lives and nothing changes except it gives us the authority to acquire land or acquire interest in the land inside the boundary.”

Asked specifically about eminent domain, Hegge replied, “We basically precluded that. We said we’re not going to use eminent domain; we’ve been saying it for almost three years.”

Hegge said a Landowner Bill of Rights had been included in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The bill of rights states a landowner has “the right to sell land to anyone of their choice” and “the right not to sell land.”

Hegge said he could not explain the opposition by the county commissioners and local residents to the designation.

“I don’t explain it,” he said. “I’ve always explained it as a belief system. They believe that somehow, their lives are going to be disrupted, but it’s all willing seller, willing buyer. It’s a voluntary process. If you don’t want to sell, you don’t have to sell.”

But James Beers, chief of refuge operations for the Fish and Wildlife Service for eight years at the Washington, D.C., headquarters, dismisses such promises as “window dressing.” In his former position within the service, he oversaw law enforcement, training, information systems, budget, “everything.”

“I don’t believe that any of them can say that eminent domain will not be used,” he told WorldNetDaily. “The government can exercise eminent domain at any point they want. Three years, five years down the road they can say, ‘You know, it’s very important that we have this farm here because it’s important to our water supply for this, that and the other, and we have to exercise eminent domain.’ Nobody, not the Fish and Wildlife Service, not the secretary of Interior, not even the president can say ‘We will never exercise eminent domain.’

“That is an academic point,” he continued. “They have the authority for eminent domain, and the fact that they want to say right now — or even if they put in writing that they can foresee no reason to exercise it — you still won’t have any recourse. You can’t go into court and say, ‘Gee, in the DEIS [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] back in the year 2000 it says they wouldn’t exercise eminent domain, and here it is 2006, and they want to exercise it.’

“Think about it,” he urged. “The government can’t give away a right or responsibility. That’s all window dressing.”

Beers had more than a few words to say on the subject, particularly on the matter of the Fish and Wildlife Service overreaching its mandate.

In his view: “The federal government has absolutely no more legal or other responsibility or concern for sprawl around Dayton or Columbus, Ohio, than the man in the moon. If anything, that’s a county or state problem or issue to be dealt with by zoning laws, taxing systems, that kind of thing.

“The idea that the federal government can look at Denver or Omaha and say, ‘Wow, Omaha’s going to grow 10 more miles out there in the next few years, we better quick buy some land there’ — that’s just absurd. It’s a red herring.

“It’s like the business about the prairie — that there’s only 100,000 acres of this kind of prairie left. That’s just nonsense. And not only is it nonsense, but the federal government has no responsibility for that like it does for migratory birds because they signed a treaty or for endangered species because a law was passed. This is just these people making up reasons why they should be able to spend the acquisition money they’ve got in ways they want to spend it.

“It’s all part of the same movement of the federal government and its agencies — we’re looking at the Fish and Wildlife Service facet of it right now — to go beyond what they’re supposed to do.”

Related stories:

Shovel Brigade takes on ‘roadless’ policy

Nevada lawmaker vows to open road

Related column:

Gloria doesn’t get it: the tug-of-war for land

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