The latest skirmish began with great promise, at least according to organizers. More than a thousand people were supposed to show up with picks and shovels to open a washed-out Forest Service road to the Jarbidge Wilderness, in the northernmost reaches of Nevada near the Idaho border.
The protest was supposed to prove that the Western rebellion against the federal government was alive and well at the end of the century.
Instead, it ended with recriminations, empty boasts, and a few diehards throwing rocks into the Jarbidge River in a vain gesture of defiance.
For weeks, local anti-government activists in Elko County had been raising expectations for their Oct. 9 work party to open a dirt road washed away in a flood on the Jarbidge River four years ago. County officials said the road was needed for campground access and firefighting, and last year a county road crew had unsuccessfully tried to reopen the road with a bulldozer (HCN, 9/14/98).
The county was ready for a second try, and Forest Service employees were warned by local law enforcement officials to stay away from this former mining town for fear of violence. One organizer told people to "remember Waco."
But the Forest Service wanted to keep the road closed to protect the threatened bull trout, also known as the dolly varden, that lives in the Jarbidge River. The Friday before the party was to begin, organizers were informed that a federal district court judge had issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting anyone from working in the river where bull trout were spawning. Anyone caught harming a fish or its habitat could be held in contempt of court and face criminal charges.
That night, one man shuffled through the Outdoor Inn, one of two bars in the town of Jarbidge, which has fewer than 30 year-round residents. "Did that stop Martin Luther King?" he demanded loudly. "Did that stop the hippies from marching? They can take that injunction and shove it! But our leaders are afraid of losing their jobs!'
The handful of other patrons regarded him with sympathetic forbearance but said nothing to encourage him.
The next morning, John Carpenter, a Republican assemblyman who represents Elko County in the Nevada Legislature and was the main organizer of the protest, said the court order caught him by surprise. "It's typical of the inconsideration of the federal government," he complained. "They wait until the last minute. We feel double-crossed."
"I don't mind going to jail," Carpenter claimed. "But I'm a law-abiding citizen and if the judge says you shouldn't do it ..." He shrugged. "We'll probably lose," he predicted bitterly about the hearing Judge David Hagen ordered him and the other organizers to attend later this month.
Carpenter was staying at the Tsawhawbitts Ranch Bed and Breakfast Inn, where owner Krinn McCoy was curling Helen Wilson's hair for the barbecue local residents had planned for people who came to work on the road. At 89, Wilson is Jarbidge's oldest resident. She has lived in town since she was a few weeks old, although she spends winters in San Diego now.
"That road was built by people, not by the Forest Service," Wilson protested. "Ah, pooh!" she said about the judge's restraining order to protect the bull trout. "I've caught lots of those dolly vardens. What do they worry about them for? They're ugly. They're soft. They're not good eating."
But Wilson was quick to say, "I don't want violence," when McCoy asked whether she wanted to see a confrontation.
McCoy agreed. Most of her patrons are hikers visiting the wilderness area, she said, but business has been down since the road washed out.
"I think they ought to put it back," she said. "It really limits access to the canyon. But there's got to be another way, if everyone could leave their grudges and quit fighting. It has strictly become political now."
The hat and the pitchfork
In the end, fewer than 50 people drove up the canyon to the site of the protest, where the road ends at a national forest campground. The road used to continue another mile and a half up the narrow canyon through groves of quaking aspen and pine trees beside the Jarbidge River. Now, the river runs back and forth across the canyon and has chewed up stretches of the former roadway.
"We'll have a hard time getting hundreds of people up here again," said Grant Gerber, an Elko attorney and one of the main organizers of the event.
"I can get as many people as you want here," boasted Dick Carver, a commissioner from Nye County, who drove a bulldozer past a Forest Service roadblock in 1994 and won a place on the cover of Time magazine.
By midday, everyone was back in town for the barbecue put on by local residents for visiting supporters.
Walt Sanders, the mayor of West Wendover, a town on the Utah border, said he came to show his support for the people of Jarbidge. But he looked slightly confused and bemused by the whole affair.
"This won't help anybody," he said of the kind of protest that had been planned. "It'll just get people in trouble."
People in Wendover and other towns throughout Nevada are concerned about access to surrounding federal land. But Sanders said he is trying to work with the federal agencies rather than fight them. "I've always been a firm believer in the art of negotiation. You get a lot further if you come with your hat in your hand rather than a pitchfork."
After the barbecue, Carpenter and Gerber and the other organizers were nowhere to be seen. And local residents were left to clean up. The only rebel in evidence was Carver, standing by the back of a pickup with a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his shirt pocket, hawking copies of a book about his road opening forays and criticizing his Elko counterparts.
"They quit," he said. "When the Forest Service cop stood up in front of me, we kept going."
Carver claimed he could easily put the road back in Jarbidge Canyon in two hours with a bulldozer. But this time, he had no takers.
* Jon Christensen
Jon Christensen writes about the Great Basin from Carson City, Nevada.
You can contact ...
* Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Elko District, 775-738-5171;
* Matt Holford, Trout Unlimited, Nevada Chairman, Elko, 775-778-3159;
* John Carpenter, Nevada Assemblyman, Elko, 775-738-9861;
* Elko County Commission, 775-738-5398.