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Know the West

Kicking and screaming in Nevada

The July 4 Shovel Brigade rally was a yawner, but protesters may still get what they want


JARBIDGE, Nev. -They're first going to take your guns, then your land, then your children!" state assemblyman John Carpenter told the crowd gathered along the Jarbidge River in the Humboldt National Forest. "Do something, so we don't lose this great nation!'

On July 4, Carpenter and his allies in the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade hoped to ignite a broad-based movement against federal authority - by reopening a mile-and-a-half-long Forest Service road in northeastern Nevada with picks and shovels.

The protest drew people from as far away as Rhode Island. Eric Peterka drove from Talking Rock, Ga., to move a few shovels full of dirt off the road. "If I don't do it, nobody will. And somebody's got to do it," he says. Federal authority, he adds, "has gotten out of control everywhere. Somebody needs to draw the line."

Although organizers hoped to attract 3,000 to 5,000 participants, only about 400 people showed up on the Fourth, and many of these were reporters, police, support staff and curious observers.

Protesters moved dirt and a giant rock from the roadway, but didn't come close to opening it.

Their message, however, got through. Under a proposed agreement, the Forest Service would reopen the road at its own expense. Ironically, the county has not signed onto the agreement. In this corner of Nevada, where the Forest Service is often called "the Green Gestapo," many equate signing the agreement with selling out to the feds.

The last gasp?

The South Canyon Road, a dirt road leading to a trailhead in the Jarbidge Wilderness, has been the focus of controversy for years. In 1995, a flood washed out the road, and the local chapter of the environmental group Trout Unlimited persuaded the Forest Service not to reopen it. The group argued that erosion from the road threatened the endangered bull trout population in the Jarbidge River.

Elko County protested the decision, saying the road was needed for firefighting and campground access, and in 1998 county officials led an unsuccessful attempt to reopen the road with a bulldozer. After a court injunction stopped a group of citizens from reopening the road with picks and shovels last year (HCN, 10/25/99: Nevada rebellion ends with a whimper), the issue appeared to be dead in the water. But over the winter, sympathizers from Idaho and Montana sent thousands of shovels as tokens of solidarity. In January, nearly 4,000 protesters marched to the Elko County courthouse. A 30-foot-high shovel they erected still stands on the courthouse lawn.

"It's the last gasp of the Sagebrush Rebels," says Susan Tixier, executive director of the environmental group Great Old Broads for Wilderness. She and more than 20 other wilderness advocates attended the July 4 rally to watch quietly and clean up afterwards. "Wilderness has a value regardless of who can get into it," she says. "It's not about people, it's about land."

The Forest Service stayed away from the recent protest, but afterward the agency sent in a team to assess the damages. "It really gets down to control of the land," says Erin O'Connor, spokesperson for the Forest Service's Elko office. "One of the things you often hear is "give the land back to the states." But it never was state land. It has always been federal land, belonging to all Americans."

An attempt at peace

Is a truce possible? The county commission, the citizens who organized last year's protest, and the federal government have just completed a lengthy mediation process, but the fate of the South Canyon Road is still uncertain.

If the proposed agreement is approved by all parties, the Forest Service would rebuild the road in a slightly different location, and the county would not be liable for any damage caused by the abortive road repairs. In exchange, the county would agree not to pursue its claim to road ownership.

Matt Holford, an Elko County resident and executive director for the Nevada State Council of Trout Unlimited, says the agreement sells out the fish. "The bull trout needs clean water," says Holford, who filed the initial appeal halting the Forest Service's plans to reopen the road after the flood. "Bull trout populations near roads are the ones with the most trouble."

But all of the involved federal agencies - the U.S. Department of Justice, the Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - have reluctantly signed the agreement. Staffers say they want to put the road issue behind them.

"I want to get back to cooperating with Elko County," says Forest Service regional forester Jack Blackwell, even though he says the agreement is not what he'd hoped.

Elko County has postponed its decision until August, since some commission members and other citizens say the county should try to prove in court that it owns the road.

Gary Woodbury, the county's district attorney, warned the commission that the expensive litigation process would accomplish little. And even protester Carpenter warned that the litigation may cost $5 million to $10 million.

"Where are we going to get the money to pay for this?" commissioner Mike Nannini asked his fellow commissioners.

These warnings may not have much impact in Elko, where the fight against federal intrusion still has the fervor of a holy war. One citizen told the commission, "This meeting is to decide whether to be practical, or whether to follow our conscience."

Zachary Mider is a freelance writer spending the summer in Elko, Nev.


  • Marian McKenzie, Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, 775/753-8717;
  • Erin O'Connor, Elko spokesperson for Forest Service, 775/738-5171;
  • Elko County Commission, 775/738-5398.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Zachary Mider