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Know the West

A county in Nevada assaults a river

 

County commissioners of Elko County, Nev., in the sparsely populated northeastern corner of the state, aren't known for their goodwill toward the federal government. So when they decided to do a little road repair on Forest Service land this summer, they didn't waste any time on paperwork.

They wanted to reopen the flood-damaged South Canyon Road, which skirts the west fork of the Jarbidge River and had been closed for two years. The Forest Service had decided to keep the road closed, but on July 15, three of the five commissioners signed a resolution supporting repair and reopening of the road, agreeing it was necessary for firefighting and for campground access. Six days later, a county road crew went to work, channelizing about 1,000 feet of the river and dumping sediment into the riverbed with a payloader.

They didn't bother with a federal permit, says county manager George Boucher, because the county believes South Canyon Road is a county right-of-way. "The road was there before the Forest Service was around," he says.

But in its rush to assert the county's rights, the commission overlooked a few details; as a result the road is still closed and the county is in a legal mess.

The Jarbidge River is the home of the Jarbidge bull trout population, which had been proposed for threatened status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In fact, the county started its roadwork only hours before the agency held a public meeting in Jackpot, Nev., on the federal listing of the trout. Although the commission assured the press that residents of the nearby town of Jarbidge - which has a year-round population of seven - had rescued stranded trout in buckets and released them beneath the diversion, the roadwork had destroyed a long stretch of habitat.

And is the road county property? "Plainly not," says Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora. The Forest Service had previously proposed reopening the road, but the nonprofit environmental group Trout Unlimited appealed the proposal. At the end of June, the Forest Service changed its position, saying it wanted the road replaced by a foot trail.

The commissioners' roadwork "denuded the whole damn place," says Matt Holford, an Elko resident and chairman of the 600-member Nevada Council of Trout Unlimited. "They were told (by the Fish and Wildlife Service) that if they tried a wacky action like this, they were going to get the trout listed."

And they did. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers issued cease-and-desist orders to the commission. Then, the Nevada office of the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended an emergency endangered listing for the Jarbidge bull trout, which took effect on Aug. 11.

"Of all the populations of bull trout that we have listed or proposed for listing, this is the smallest one," says Bob Williams, field supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Nevada office.

"It's one of those things we use very seldom, but we're not afraid to use it," he says of the emergency listing. "It's a critical tool of the Endangered Species Act." The Jarbidge bull trout population is on the southern boundary of the species' range, and is isolated from other populations by a series of reservoirs.

The three commissioners were defiant. "They can list the moon as far as I'm concerned," Tony Lesperance told the Associated Press.

Elko County, the second largest county in the state, is dependent on the gold-mining industry for most of its paychecks, and more than 70 percent of the land is federally owned. As in many lightly populated Western places, hostility to the federal government is endemic.

The county's major newspaper, the Elko Daily Free Press, continues to back the commissioners' action. "Without Trout Unlimited's interference, the Jarbidge road would have been reopened," said a recent editorial. "That fact alone makes Holford and his band responsible not only for the loss of access to the Jarbidge River, but also the emergency listing of the bull trout and all future economic loses (sic) to Elko County and the residents of Jarbidge." The three county commissioners who approved the reopening could not be reached for comment.

The county has asked the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection to lift the cease-and-desist order, and a hearing will be held by the state Environmental Commission in Jarbidge in mid-September, says agency spokesman Verne Rosse. Even if the order is reversed, says Rosse, the county would need approval from the Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Fish and Wildlife Service before continuing with the roadwork.

Approval doesn't seem likely: The federal agencies and Trout Unlimited are now considering lawsuits against Elko County, hoping to win enough money to restore the stream. "It would be an affront to have the American taxpayer pay to repair the damage," says Flora.

"To people who have devoted their lives to the preservation of natural resources, this is an abomination," she says. "It's bad enough when something like this happens accidentally. But this was no accident."

* Michelle Nijhuis, HCN reporter

You can contact ...

* Matt Holford, Trout Unlimited, Nevada State Council, 702/753-4306;

* Fish and Wildlife Service Nevada Field Office (Reno), 702/861-6300;

* Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Headquarters (Sparks), 702/331-6444;

* Elko County Commission, 702/738-5398.