The groups say that the proposed settlement agreement between the county and the Forest Service would set a dangerous precedent in settling these types of disputes throughout the West.
"The proposed settlement would permanently give away public lands to Elko County, and it came out of closed talks," said Robert Wiygul, attorney for the groups. "The public deserves to have the chance to review this agreement and hear why control over their public lands is being given away for good."
The groups also believe that the settlement would encourage claims under a legal loophole that lies at the heart of the road ownership issue. The loophole involves an 1866 mining statute called R.S. 2477, which anti-government groups and off-road vehicle organizations have been trying to use to open millions of acres to indiscriminate road building. "These groups are not asking for rights of way for any legitimate transportation purposes, as was the original intent of the ancient law," added Pam Eaton, Regional Director of the Four Corners office of The Wilderness Society.
"Instead, they are using it as a weapon to gouge roads through wild places in an attempt to render them unsuitable for wilderness and other protective designations."
The groups said there is no evidence that the South Canyon road meets the accepted requirements for an R.S. 2477 right-of-way. The groups noted that there are thousands of claims like this one around the west, some going through the heart of wilderness areas, national parks and national monuments. "Granting a permanent right-of-way without any proof that it meets the accepted standards sets a terrible precedent. The appearance is certainly that public lands will be given away to those who scream the loudest," said Pam Eaton.
The groups also said that the agreement does not specifically address whether the Forest Service has the authority to manage the road to protect resources like the bull trout, a threatened species in the Jarbidge River. "If we know one thing about Elko County, it is that if you give them and inch they'll take a mile," said Katie Fite of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness. "The Forest Service must keep control over the South Canyon Road to protect other federal resources."
"Granting an R.S. 2477 right-of-way is forever, and the agreement doesn't say whether it retains all the protections of the Endangered Species Act and other federal statutes for the future. This is why public review and a full airing of the issues around this settlement is necessary," concluded Robert Wiygul.
Founded in 1935, The Wilderness Society is a national nonprofit organization with 175,000 members. The group works to protect America's wilderness and wildlife and to develop a nationwide network of wildlands through public education, scientific analysis and advocacy. Our goal is to ensure that future generations will enjoy the clean air and water, wildlife, beauty and opportunities for recreation and renewal that pristine forests, rivers, deserts and mountains provide. TWS and its members have a long-standing interest in the management of forested public lands, including national forest lands.
Great Old Broads for Wilderness is a grassroots organization dedicated to wilderness growth and protection. The Great Old Broads was founded in 1989 in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. As life-long nurturers and care-givers, the Great Old Broads' approach to wilderness protection is one of perseverance and determination. The majority of their membership are older women committed to protecting wilderness areas.