A Western Standoff Over a Dirt Road
Forest Service Closure of Damaged 1.5-Mile Passage Has Residents Talking Revolt
By John M. Glionna
Before a U.S. district judge ordered them to quit, a few hundred fist-shaking locals formed an "independent citizens work party" in October, an act of civil disobedience that federal officials from Reno to Washington worry could turn violent.
Organized by word of mouth, residents readied pickaxes, spades and teams of horses as part of a grass-roots plan to ignore warnings and reopen 1.5 miles of wilderness access road closed by the U.S. Forest Service to protect the threatened bull trout, whose habitat is a river that runs alongside the rutted, winding road.
"I was here before those Forest Service boys were even born," said 89-year-old Helen Wilson, a lifelong resident of this old mining town eight miles from the Idaho state line. "If I could, I'd spank them all over trying to close our road. It just makes me so mad!"
Forest Service officials say they are not kicking anybody out of the Jarbidge woods, just permanently closing a road that, due to repeated storm damage, could harm local fish populations with silt and pollution runoff. Officials plan to replace the road with a walking trail that would provide locals continued access to the forest they cherish.
But residents say the fight involves more than just a single dirt road.
President Clinton's decision in October to seek a ban on road-building in U.S. forests nationwide--a plan that would more than double the wilderness land that's off-limits to all but hikers, cross-country skiers and boaters--has only escalated the tension, they say.
Across rural Nevada, residents speak of a revolt against what they say is an arrogant and self-serving federal government that owns 87 percent of their state--the largest percentage in the nation and equivalent in size to the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
Citing the Boston Tea Party and quoting passages from the Declaration of Independence, they have vowed to continue exerting pressure over the disputed road in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, a smoldering standoff that is symbolic of a much larger rift between federal land managers and citizens from Montana to California.
Many say that the South Canyon Road--washed out by flooding three years before the official federal closure--is a vital part of their lives, providing access to hunting and fishing grounds as well as views of pristine forest land. Others are frustrated that the U.S. government controls forest and grazing land they believe should be locally controlled.
In Nevada, controversial federal policies are more than just subjects for an academic debate among insulated policymakers, but constitute a vital test of wills over how the future of the American West is managed.
"It's about a small town that loves its access to the wilderness, a right that's being stolen from them by a bunch of power-hungry bureaucrats," said Marla Griswold, a rancher.
For many, the Jarbidge road dispute echoes the high-pitched emotions of the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s, when western state legislatures passed resolutions demanding that federal land revert to local control.
"This may be the start of another Sagebrush Rebellion. It's not an isolated incident," said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Reno. "At the heart of the unrest are rural folks tired of being told what to do by people 3,000 miles away in Washington. They want to call their own shots. And the attitude is spreading."
Indeed, the Jarbidge revolt goes beyond local residents to include local government.
Federal officials have threatened to sue Elko County over its efforts last year to repair the South Canyon Road. U.S. District Judge David Hagen included county officials in his recent injunction against any road work.
In a recent congressional hearing in the town of Elko, a meeting characterized by forest officials as "an inquisition" and as "the Elko witch hunt," Elko County Commission Chairman Tony Lesperance threatened to defy Hagen's order.
"Ultimately, the issue is who owns the county--the federal government or the people," Lesperance told 500 residents. "We will rebuild the road, come hell or high water."
County officials maintain that the road has been public domain since the days of the early western settlers, long before the Forest Service was established near the turn of the century.
The tensions led to the resignation earlier this month of Gloria Flora, the Forest Service official in charge of the 6.3 million-acre Humboldt-Toiyabe, the largest national forest in the lower 48 states.
Flora, who will step down in January, said she was abandoning a promising federal career because of the local government-backed atmosphere she described as an "open season against federal employees in Nevada."
"I refuse to do this anymore," said Flora, who held her Nevada post for a year and a half before "this vile little match" erupted over the remote road. "I am just so tired of going up against a bunch of yahoos purposely trying to vilify you at every turn."
"Oftentimes, these decisions are made by people over our heads," Flora added. "Nobody in Washington asks our opinion, but we have to carry out the initiatives and deal with the consequences. This is just the beginning. The president's roadless initiative is going to be very difficult to enforce."
Days after Flora announced that she was resigning, 36 Forest Service employees sent a letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, saying they were shocked by the "toxic atmosphere" that was "spinning out of control."
Anti-federal fervor has reached such a pitch in rural Nevada, Flora said, that Forest Service employees have been refused service at restaurants and one was kicked out of an area motel after the owners learned who his employer was.
She said many U.S. forest rangers in Elko County have stopped wearing their signature green uniforms for fear of reprisal, and some now drive their own vehicles after a marked Forest Service truck was briefly detained without cause by local law enforcement. As a safety measure, rangers also travel in pairs whenever they venture into the Jarbidge area, Flora added.
"This is classic discrimination. We just have green uniforms instead of different color skin," Flora said. "My people now pretend they're not who they are. That's unacceptable."
Local officials deny that any such incidents have occurred.
Before last month's ban on the citizen road repair, sheriff's deputies warned U.S. forest rangers to avoid the Jarbidge area for fear that dirt road supporters arriving from throughout Nevada and Idaho might get incited. And the Elko County undersheriff has repeatedly had to remind disgruntled residents that, under the law, they have to obey the orders of rangers on U.S. forest land.
Flora noted that her staff even lacks support from federal prosecutors. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Las Vegas has declined to prosecute at least 21 felonies and 52 misdemeanors involving threats and other crimes against federal employees since 1990, she said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said those cases had not been prosecuted for many reasons, including lack of evidence.
The Forest Service announced in late November that it was forming a team that will investigate the most recent allegations and threats against agency workers in Nevada, and the Justice Department has promised to prosecute such cases.
"Any threats against federal employees will be taken very seriously," said Steve Myhre, an assistant U.S. attorney in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, federal officials remain on the lookout for signs of trouble.
"We haven't seen any violence yet, but these people are talking all the rhetoric," said Dave Aicher, a district ranger in charge of the Jarbidge area, dressed in a sweater whose color he proudly announces as "Forest Service green."
"You hear things like 'Remember Ruby Ridge' and 'God is on our side.' It certainly is a tense situation here," he said.
Not everyone is lining up behind the Jarbidge road rebellion. An editorial in the Reno Gazette-Journal headlined "Call Off Elko's Shovel Brigade" opined that what rural Nevadans were planning went beyond mere civil disobedience.
"It is civil war," the editorial said, "an active refusal to obey federal laws designed to protect the environment, simply because they come from the despised federal government."
Residents say such talk of violence is ludicrous, part of the fancy of the organization known around these parts as the "U.S. Forest Circus."
"What we want to do--reopen that road--is perfectly legal," said John Carpenter, 69, a Republican state assemblyman. "We're just patriotic Americans."
Jarbidge, itself on a dirt road and home to 30 year-round residents, is a dusty three-hour drive north of Elko--nestled in a winding canyon from which rock-face walls rise like scenes from a Frederic Remington painting.
The current dispute dates to 1995, when the flooding Jarbidge River washed out the road to several campgrounds in a swath of national forest land.
As the county tells it, the Forest Service offered to rebuild the road, but the project stalled and Elko County officials sent in bulldozers to make repairs in 1998. Two days later, the work was halted by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, which said the county failed to obtain the proper permits.
Enter the bull trout. In August 1998, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made an emergency declaration listing the fish as a threatened species. Federal officials then sealed off the road with rocks, saying the county repairs threatened local bull trout, which make up the southernmost population of the fish in North America.
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