15 years after the Shovel Brigade, debate over federal control rages on

15 years after the Shovel Brigade, debate over federal control rages on

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JARBIDGE — On Independence Day 2000, protesters from across the West and the nation converged on remote Jarbidge to rebuild a road that the federal government said they couldn’t.

Hundreds came from Idaho in donated school buses, descending a rough canyon grade. When they got to Jarbidge’s South Canyon Road, partially washed out by the Jarbidge River in 1995, they hauled out of the way a boulder with which the Forest Service had blocked the road. They used thousands of shovels, donated by supporters throughout the West, to clear a few hundred feet of the closed road.

Fifteen years after the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade’s anti-federal protest, the state of Nevada and Elko County are still in court, battling with two environmental groups that want to nullify the county’s settlement with the federal government.

Ostensibly, the fight is about a rock-filled dirt track, in parts barely wide enough for a truck, that dead-ends at a trailhead. To many of the Shovel Brigade’s supporters, though, the fight was about keeping roads on public lands open and pushing back against federal control of Western lands.

“Just about anything you do out here, you’re impacted in one way or another by the federal government,” said Demar Dahl, one of the Shovel Brigade’s leaders and now an Elko County commissioner. “To try to have some say-so or input on what goes on is difficult, very difficult.”

And since 2000, some Shovel Brigade leaders, including Dahl, have advocated for increased local control or outright state ownership of federal lands. The issue is being hotly debated in statehouses across the West and has started to draw attention in the U.S. Congress, where both chambers came under Republican control this year.

To Trout Unlimited, the group that originally persuaded the U.S. Forest Service not to reopen South Canyon Road, the issue was simple: protect the Jarbidge River’s bull trout from being harmed by construction.

Bull trout were listed as a threatened species in 1998, and the Jarbidge River population is unique because it is cut off from bull trout elsewhere in the Northwest, said Chris Hunt, Trout Unlimited’s national spokesman.

“The trout that are in the Jarbidge now — the native trout, the red-band trout, rainbow and bull trout — are kind of relics from a day long gone, from an age gone by so to speak,” he said this month.

The group is “agnostic” on the larger roads issue.

“It wasn’t our job to be for or against the access into that area,” Hunt said. “Quite frankly, our perspective was: We don’t care how (bull trout) are protected or sustained. We just want to make sure they are.”

The lawsuit playing out in Reno revolves around something more complex: the interpretation of Revised Statute 2477.

Passed by Congress in 1866 to encourage road-building and settlement in the West, RS 2477 simply reads: “The right of way for the construction of highways across public lands not otherwise reserved for public purposes is hereby granted.”

Those 21 words have sparked many court battles since 1976, when the federal government repealed the law as part of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act but said existing valid roads could stay. Disputes between local officials and access advocates who want to keep a road open and environmentalists who want to see it closed to motorized use often come down to arguments over exactly when a path was built and what it has been used for.

“It’s kind of a fight that’s been about principle all along,” said Mike Lattin, who was a major player in the Shovel Brigade 15 years ago and still has several thousand of the old shovels in his construction company’s yard in Elko. “If we can’t have any new roads, at least keep the roads we’ve got.”

In 2011, the Forest Service, while not recognizing Elko County’s claim to South Canyon Road, agreed not to challenge it. The Wilderness Society and Great Old Broads for Wilderness sued to get the deal thrown out. Oral arguments are done, but the parties have until July to file briefs.

Rey Nystrom, who owns Jarbidge’s general store, said he thinks lawyers for the environmental groups are dragging out the fight to make more money. Dot Creechley, who owns Jarbidge’s two restaurant-saloons, said she doesn’t see the point of the suit.

“I don’t know what they plan to accomplish or change,” she said.

The Shovel Brigade’s Drama

How did a local protest over a short dirt road end up drawing hundreds of people and national media attention?

After the federal government blocked the road with boulders in 1999, then-Nevada Assemblyman John Carpenter declared at a county commissioners’ meeting in Wells that state and county leaders would open the road anyway. When a reporter asked Dahl after an Elko parade when it would happen, he blurted out the Fourth of July.

That set the date.

Other leading figures in the protest included Grant Gerber, a fourth-generation Elko County resident and rancher; O.Q. “Chris” Johnson, head of the county Republican Party; and Elwood Mose, a Shoshone Indian and a descendant of signatories of the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863, which he said the federal government was violating. The idea for the shovels came from Jim Hurst, a Montana sawmill owner concerned about logging restrictions.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t agree with these agencies shutting down roads and cutting down our access,” Carpenter said. “That’s the reason we got a large crowd of people out there to help us open this road, because they feel very strongly about their access to public lands and all of those issues.”

Anti-federal feeling was running high. Gloria Flora, the Forest Service supervisor for the area, resigned in late 1999.

“The attitude towards federal employees and federal laws in Nevada is pitiful,” Flora wrote in her resignation letter. “People in rural communities who do respect the law and accept responsibility for complying with it are often rebuked or ridiculed.”

Although there was no violence, things were tense and people were upset, said Steve Moyer, in charge of government affairs work for Trout Unlimited at the time.

“The Trout Unlimited people in Elko were a bit afraid to speak out on the issue, or a bit afraid to be identified in the community as being Trout Unlimited members,” he said a month ago.

The Twin Falls {!—BC Emph—}Times-News, which took a strongly pro-Shovel Brigade editorial stance, defended those people who were rude to Forest Service employees.

“The solution isn’t for Forest Service employees to complain about the locals being mean,” the paper wrote in a February 2000 editorial. “The solution is for the Forest Service higher-ups to start listening and stop dictating to the locals.”

The Justice Department sought an injunction to block the Shovel Brigade from proceeding, but a federal judge in Reno denied it in June 2000. Fox News covered the protest extensively, Carpenter said, and some people came from far away to take part, including a fisherman from Rhode Island who objected to federal regulation of East Coast fisheries.

“I think it just struck a chord, that there are a lot of people that ... resent getting so many of the rules that they live by ... made by people who aren’t elected (and) a long ways away,” Dahl said.

The crowds heading to Jarbidge passed through southern Idaho’s Three Creek area, where Three Creek Road runs by the Brackett family’s ranch land.

“I was supportive of what they were doing philosophically,” said Idaho Sen. Bert Brackett, although he didn’t go to Jarbidge himself. “At that time, it was a pushback (against) federal overreach, and that’s still alive and well today.”

The Shovel Brigade’s Legacy

Some of the Shovel Brigade’s supporters the next year backed the Klamath Bucket Brigade, a protest by farmers against water restrictions in Oregon. Gerber continued to push for lessened federal control and — to protect ranchers — was a main organizer of Elko County’s sage grouse conservation program. He died in October 2014 after falling from his horse while carrying petitions from Nevada to Washington, D.C.

Dahl and Utah Rep. Ken Ivory went on to found the American Lands Council, the most prominent of the lobbying groups pushing for a transfer of federally owned lands to the states. Dahl chaired a committee the Nevada Legislature created in 2013 to study a land transfer.

Steve Hartgen, publisher of the {!—BC Emph—}Times-News during the protests, is now an Idaho legislator representing Twin Falls and was on a committee that did a similar study in Idaho. In a recent interview, Hartgen criticized federal management, saying it has limited grazing and recreational access and made wildfires worse. He compared the feds to the Sheriff of Nottingham, the villain of the Robin Hood legends who patrolled the forest for the King of England.

“These agencies sometimes treat us like we’re the serfs of the federal government,” Hartgen said. “I’m sympathetic to people who say we need a stronger approach to multi-use management.”

While the breakdown isn’t entirely partisan on every proposal — some Idaho Senate Republicans, for example, cited cost concerns earlier this year in killing a bill to create an interstate compact to work on the issue — western Republicans at the state and federal levels generally support efforts to increase state control and Democrats oppose them.

Supporters of a transfer say national parks and other sensitive lands would stay under federal control, and that transferred lands would stay public. Opponents doubt it would play out like that.

Trout Unlimited is one of the conservation groups lobbying against a transfer to the states. Hunt said the answer to management issues is for the federal government to invest more.

“The one thing that the states all seem to overlook is just how expensive it is to maintain forest roads and manage for fire and all that,” Hunt said. “The notion that states would be able to afford that is laughable.”

If advocates for state control are successful, Hunt said, there “will probably be some sort of fire sale of public lands to private interests” because the states couldn’t afford to keep them.

Meanwhile, Elko County’s legal bills have exceeded $250,000 in its 16-year-old court battle over South Canyon Road, the Elko Daily Free Press reported last month.

Dahl and Carpenter said the fight is worthwhile.

“It’s taken a lot of money and time and effort to keep fighting this battle, but I feel that we’ve got to do it if you’re going to protect your freedoms and your right to access,” Carpenter said.

The debate is more civil than it was 15 years ago, Moyer said. The dispute led his group to build relationships with ranchers, local communities and other users of the land.

“We really work at it, and I think we’ve got much better relationships with a lot of those entities than we had in 2000,” he said.


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