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Road to the Outhouse

Wise-use zealots bash feds and bull trout in Nevada
Fly Rod & Reel    Jan./Feb. 2001

One might suppose that lovely landscapes would inspire, rub off on or in some fashion elevate the humans thereon. But in my travels around America, particularly in the West, I find that the most beautiful places tend to be inhabited by the ugliest people. Consider Elko County, in northeastern Nevada, a land of breathtaking panoramas, ancient upheavals and pristine wilderness. Here the county government—in league with and indistinguishable from a rabble of anti-UN, anti-environmental, property-rights, local-control, new-world-order-conspiracy theorists—is attempting to teach the federal government a lesson by sacrificing the world’s southernmost population of bull trout.

The trout—a distinct population segment listed as threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service—is extant in the Jarbidge River despite current and historic land abuse by miners and ranchers based in and around the town of Jarbidge. Best estimates place the river’s entire bull trout population at between 800 and 1,500; the species occurs nowhere else in the state.

Miners have destabilized the watershed so that major rain and snow events cause landslides. The spoil is shunted down a narrow section so that, periodically, a Forest Service road paralleling the river gets blown out. This has been happening since the road went in 90 years ago. When last the road washed into the river—in 1995—the Forest Service was all set to undertake the usual repairs, but Nevada Trout Unlimited appealed, pointing out that the road could not have been built in a worse place and that it should be discontinued for the sake of the bull trout. In due course, the Forest Service agreed and in June 1998 announced that it would be replacing the road with a hillside trail. It was a huge gain for the fish and no loss to any rational human resident of Elko County. After all, the road was but 11/2 miles long and led only to a dilapidated outhouse that wasn’t even stocked with toilet paper. Besides, it’s a nice walk.

But, fantasizing that it had “sovereignty” over roads on federal land—in this case, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest—and in defiance of the law and the United States government, Elko County attempted to rebuild the road itself with heavy earth-moving equipment. In its inept and illegal attempt it destroyed trees and other vegetation, filled wetlands and dumped tons of spoil into the river, thereby changing its course and seriously damaging bull trout habitat. “The level of the road they tried to reconstruct was literally below the bottom of the river,” declared Gloria Flora, the supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, who inherited the mess. “It was the most obscene attempt at road building that I have ever run across.”

The Forest Service did nothing to stop the vandalism. Finally, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and the US Army Corps of Engineers put an end to it by ordering the county to cease and desist. Even before the vandalism occurred the US Justice Dept. had told the Forest Service to keep its law-enforcement agents away. After the incident, and under political pressure from Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the Forest Service “negotiated” with the vandals, eventually suggesting that they be let off the hook and that the US government build them a $6 million road above the flood plain. But this wasn’t good enough, and they stormed away from the table. With that, the Forest Service and other federal agencies spent $420,000 of the taxpayers’ money in an effort to fix the damage done by Elko County.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, on the other hand, responded with courage and professionalism, announcing an emergency endangered listing of the Jarbidge River bull trout. Eight months later, in April 1999, it downlisted the population segment to threatened.

Then in October 1999 Elko attorney Grant Gerber, Elko County Republican Party head O.Q. Johnson, and Nevada Assemblyman John Carpenter (R-Elko) organized a “citizens work crew” to rebuild the road. This time the vandalism was stopped before it started by a restraining order from a federal judge who ordered the Justice Dept., Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, county pooh-bahs and sundry perpetually agitated citizens to enter into “mediation.”

The press played it up, and like blowflies to cow pies opportunistic politicians descended on Elko. In November 1999, allegedly at the urging of Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-NV), Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-ID), chair of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, showed up in Elko to conduct some of the dog-and-pony shows she calls “hearings.” This time the pressing forest issue being examined was the closure of the road to the outhouse. A “charade” and “a public inquisition of federal employees” is how Gloria Flora aptly described the hearings. She said she wouldn’t be participating, and she publicly objected to the gross conflict of interest: Chenoweth-Hage had just married Wayne Hage, the Tonapah, Nevada wise-use barker who is suing the federal government and whose cattle Flora’s predecessor, Jim Nelson, rounded up and sold at auction after repeated warnings to get them off public land.

Emboldened by having made the Justice Dept. and the Forest Service blink, the “Jarbidge Shovel Brigade,” as the protesters now called themselves, paraded about town last January, beating themselves on the chest and proclaiming that they had won an “amazing” and “phenomenal” victory over the vile and ubiquitous feds. “Shovels for Solidarity,” a group started by a Montana logger who claims to have been victimized by the Endangered Species Act, sent shovels to Elko—10,000 according to the Elko Daily Free Press, the most unreliable of all sources on both sides of the supermarket. A giant shovel was erected beside the courthouse, and people—13,000 reports the Daily Free Press — paid a dollar each to have their names engraved on it.

Then, last July 3 and 4, in defiance of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade resumed work on the outhouse road. There were going to be 5,000 in attendance, according to the Associated Press. But only about 350 showed up, of which about 90 were cops and about 70 reporters. At least half the demonstrators weren’t even from Nevada. They included, for example, whining commercial fishermen from New England who had put themselves out of work by wiping out the groundfish resource. But as Shovel Brigade board member O.Q. Johnson spun it, “On the East Coast the fishing industry is plagued by ignorant bureaucrat regulations and inspectors who won’t let the fishermen keep their catches . . . . They have asked for help from the Shovel Brigade.”


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