ELKO – Elko County Commissioners are looking at holding a workshop before they decide whether to support a bill in Congress that could change how the county handles challenges from the federal government on historic roads.
“This is an enormously complex issue … the commission needs to grapple with what to do in the future. I recommend you look at the bill in greater depth,” Chief Civil Deputy District Attorney Kristin McQueary told commissioners.
She said the county hasn’t had a new dispute with the federal government in a long time over roads, but the roughly 20 years of court battles over the South Canyon Road at Jarbidge have taught a few lessons, including how to look for evidence.
The proposed bill, HR 3270, and the companion Senate bill 468 put the burden back on the county to prove road ownership, McQueary said.
A date hasn’t been set for the workshop, but Elko County Manager Rob Stokes said on April 5 he “would guess maybe the next meeting, but more than likely the meeting after that,” which would be May 2.
“The purpose of the act makes sense,” Elko County Commission Chairman Delmo Andreozzi said at the April 4 meeting of commissioners.
“It’s a great goal, but the devil is in the details,” McQueary responded.
Commissioners want to invite Nye County Commissioner Lorinda Wichman and Jake Tibbits, natural resources manager for Eureka County, to the workshop on the House bill that begins by stating it would “establish a procedure for resolving claims to certain rights-of-way, and for other purposes.”
Nye County has already hired a contractor and put together a road history and “in the end recommends supporting the bill,” said John Baldwin, community development and natural resources director for Elko County. “This legislation provides avenues outside a lawsuit for the federal government.”
Tibbetts also has years of experience in road issues and is chairman of the Nevada Land Use Planning Advisory Council.
“Both SLUPAC and Eureka County have supported a congressional solution to bring finality to the RS 2477 ‘clouded title’ controversies,” Tibbetts said in an email on April 6.
He said the advisory council has a mandate to assist the Nevada Association of Counties and the state’s attorney general for a “consistent protocol for all counties to formalize and finalize title to these roads.”
Baldwin said he recommends supporting the U.S. House and Senate bills at this time, but his support depends on word changes before passages. He is working with lawmakers on wording, especially the office of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who is a co-sponsor on the Senate historic roads bill.
“I think we will be watching both bills and try to influence them were we can. Previous bills didn’t make it out of committee,” Baldwin said in an April 6 phone interview.
Tibbitts said the bills aren’t perfect, “and we would like to see some changes, but the intent and concept is sound, in our opinion.”
Commissioner Cliff Eklund questioned how important Elko County’s position on the House bill might be.
“I’m not sure, but Elko County has been at the forefront of the RS 2477 fight,” McQueary said.
The county’s fight that began in 1998 over South Canyon Road drew national attention and sparked the Jarbidge Bucket Brigade protest. County commissioners decided in November 2017 to appeal the South Canyon Road lawsuit yet again.
The U.S. Forest Service maintained the road wasn’t a county road, but the agency reached an agreement with the county to keep the road open. However, two environmental groups filed against the settlement.
The bill H.R. 3270 would become the Historic Routes Preservation Act if approved. The bill states that its purpose is to “achieve judicial and administrative efficiency for, and to reduce the costs typically associated with, resolving right-of-way claims under RS 2477” in several ways.
The bill would reduce the burden on federal courts by establishing administrative procedures and evidentiary standards for processing the RS 2477 claims, establish a deadline for filing such claims, provide mandatory procedures for considering the claims and establish uniform legal and evidentiary standards of proof of public acceptance of the right-of-way claims.
McQueary said under the proposed bill, the government would want the county to make all its claims over disputed roads in the next 25 years.
Baldwin said the National Association of Counties was involved in drafting H.R. 3270, and counties in 11 Western states would be affected by the bill.
Although commissioners will be thinking more about the bill, they unofficially agreed the county should consider gathering evidence on roads and rights-of-way from citizens who may still remember historic uses and ownership before the 1976 Federal Land Management Act.