A victory in Elko

Published May 1, 2001

“We received threats and intimidation from the government up until election time, and then they [federal officials] became cooperative,” says Nolan Lloyd, chairman of the Elko County Commission.

The timing of the shift in federal policy toward the South Canyon Road, near the Idaho border north of Elko, gives a strong signal that the incoming administration of George W. Bush–and Interior Secretary Gale Norton–may curb or even roll back the eight-year campaign of the previous administration, which routinely employed the feeblest of pretexts to fence off more and more of the rural West from virtually all human access.

After 1995 floods washed out a mile-and-a-half section of the road–a dead-end dirt and gravel access for camping and fishing along the remote Jarbridge River–the U.S. Forest Service initially promised to make repairs to restore vehicular access.

A year went by, and then two. County officials began to wonder why the repair project was taking so long.

They found out in June 1998. The three-year hiatus had given federal officials all the time they needed to hunt around for a politically correct pretext for refusing to re-open the Jarbridge Road at all. Ushered onstage for the occasion, the Virginia-based environmental group Trout Unlimited suddenly discovered that renewed vehicular traffic (which had been allowed for more than a century without any noticeable problem) would now somehow harm the “endangered” bull trout. Almost as though they had been waiting for the objection, the Forest Service promptly and without further debate announced the road would henceforth exist only as an unimproved hiking trail.

Around the West this pattern has become familiar, usually steamrolling without difficulty (aided by a lapdog press that falls sucker to anything labeled “environmental protection”) the isolated resistance of a few outcast hunters, ranchers, and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts.

But Elko County proved different. The County Commission stepped forward and claimed it had gained control over the road under R.S. 2477, an 1866 law designed to encourage settlement of the West by allowing local jurisdictions to control and maintain such tracks and roadways. Only a federal court order halted the county from sending bulldozers in to reopen the road over Forest Service objections in July 1998.

Then, last Fourth of July–choosing an appropriate date to revive an ancient and honorable American tradition of peaceful civil disobedience–hundreds of members of the Jarbridge Shovel Brigade, wielding shovels donated by sympathizers across the West, marched up the road and restored several hundred feet of its surface by hand. A federal judge rejected a Forest Service request to shut it down again, and the road has remained open to four-wheel-drive vehicles ever since.

Former Forest Service supervisor Gloria Flora resigned over the conflict, claiming federal employees were refused service in local restaurants and otherwise shunned in the northeast Nevada community–which in fact would be a great idea, though witnesses could provide no such specifics when asked to do so under oath before Congress.

“I learned that in Nevada, as a federal employee, you have no right to speak, no right to do your job, and certainly no right to be treated with respect,” said Ms. Flora in her November 1999 resignation letter . . . though ironically, she resigned rather than respond under oath to skeptical subcommittee questioning by U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth Hage (R-Idaho)–a rare chance for the bureaucrat to speak out to her heart’s content.

Now, it appears Washington may have thrown in the towel entirely. Federal officials declined recently to discuss details of the Jarbridge Road agreement, and Nevada Assemblyman John Carpenter (R-Elko) said he was also prohibited from discussing details. However, “It’s a pretty big victory for us,” Carpenter did say. “The county had to get their road back in order to agree. So you can put two and two together.”

If the deal concludes as expected, “it will serve as a major victory for the West’s so-called Sagebrush Rebellion,” the Wall Street Journal reported on February 16.

“The issue here is about control, because the federal government already owns 87 percent of Nevada,” concludes Carpenter.

The victory means “we have finally understood the need for some activism that will help our people,” added Elko attorney Grant Gerber, one of the leaders of last year’s Shovel Brigade.

Few object to the preservation of a few limited, pristine sites, as originally intended by Congress. But attorney Gerber and Assemblyman Carpenter are correct–the wide-ranging campaign to fence off vast swathes of the rural West from any profitable use–what comes close to the establishment and imposition of runaway Environmentalism as a kind of new national religion, often on the feeblest of pretexts–has gone on much too long.

If the new administration really intends to apply a more common-sense standard–leaving many more such decisions to local discretion–that will mark a welcome change, indeed.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $72 to Privacy Alert, 1475 Terminal Way, Suite E for Easy, Reno, NV 89502. His book, Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998, is available at 1/800-244-2224, or visit his Web site at www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html.