Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lawyers, environmentalists continue court fight over trout

    The U.S. government says environmentalists are back in court on nothing more than a “fishing expedition” in a decade-old attempt to again close 1.5 miles of a gravel road along a threatened trout stream near the Nevada-Idaho line leading to some of the most remote, federally protected wilderness in the nation.
    The conservationists insist they’re trying to save the fish — a job they say has fallen to them because the U.S. Forest Service has shirked its responsibility to enforce locally unpopular laws.
    The latest round of courthouse volleys over the bull trout and the South Canyon Road in Elko County has the two sides fighting over tens of thousands of pages of documents that environmentalists say will prove the Forest Service and the county knew a settlement they reached in 2001 was illegal and detrimental to the fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.
    Long at odds over who owns the road to Snow Slide Gulch Trail Head near the century-old mining town of Jarbidge, the Forest Service originally fought the county in court to block reconstruction of a section that washed out in a 1995 flood.
    Agency scientists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists were adamant that silt eroding from the narrow road would warm the stream’s cold mountain waters and choke off trout eggs in the gravel beds of the furthest point south in the nation where the fish is known to survive.
    In the years that followed, volunteers in a county known for defying the government rebuilt the road by hand, hundreds marched down main street in the name of the “Shovel Brigade” and helped force the resignation of the regional forest supervisor.
    The agreement the arch enemies forged was unlike any the Forest Service had worked out before or since in a broader, ongoing legal battle over right of way claims. The claims — called RS-2477 — allow local governments or individuals to seek ownership of a road based on their belief the road existed before the national forest system was created in 1905.
    Richa Wilson, the Forest Service’s regional architectural historian based in Ogden, Utah, concluded a trail that later turned into a road was built in Jarbidge Canyon in 1910. Among other things, he found references to a Western Shoshone legend of an evil man-eating devil — “Johrbitch” or “Jarvidge” — that supposedly kept Indians and settlers from venturing into the wildly, rugged mountain canyon in the years before that.
    In the deal with Elko County, the Forest Service made clear that it was not acknowledging the county’s right of way to the road but said it would not formally challenge that right.
    Two environmental groups, the Wilderness Society and Great Old Broads for Wilderness, cried foul. They said they should have been allowed to argue that such a deal was illegal under the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Policy Management Act.

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