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Judge Dismisses Inyo County Lawsuit to Open Road in Remote Death Valley Wilderness

Victory: County failed to prove obscure, little-used route was a ‘public highway’
June 6, 2012
Fresno, CA —

A federal judge today threw out a suit by Inyo County, California to open a highway through a remote roadless area of Death Valley National Park.

Inyo County's claimed Last Chance "highway" starts in the center foreground. (Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice)

Judge Anthony W. Ishii of the U.S. District Court ruled that Inyo County failed to prove that a little-travelled desert wash in the Last Chance Mountains at the north end of the Park was a public county highway under a repealed, 19th Century right-of-way law known as “R.S. 2477.” Congress protected the Last Chance Mountains as wilderness and added the area to Death Valley National Park in 1994.

The ruling was a victory for conservation groups and the National Park Service who had argued that the County’s evidence didn’t show the half-mile route was a public highway, since the route showed no signs of construction, and since only one person could remember having traveled the route in a vehicle before 1977.

“This is a great day for Death Valley National Park and the wildlife that call it home,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm representing the conservation groups in the lawsuit. “The court’s ruling preserves the solitude and grandeur of this desert wilderness in the largest national park in the lower 48.”

The Last Chance Mountains—at the northern end of Death Valley near the California-Nevada border about 80 miles southeast of Bishop, CA—are a remote and scenic range that is home to cougar, deer, coyote, and badger.

“This decision closes down a major threat to Death Valley National Park and protects the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and many other rare plants and wildlife that call the park home,” said Lisa Belenky, Senior Attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, who also worked on the case. “It means that counties can’t obstruct efforts to protect national parks and other natural areas by claiming as a highway every wash a jeep may have once driven down.”

Six conservation groups—Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, California Wilderness Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Inyo—represented by Earthjustice intervened to support the National Park Service in the case.

Inyo County’s claim to the alleged “Last Chance Road” was one of four ‘highways’ the County sought to open in the County’s original suit, filed in 2006. Judge Ishii previously dismissed the other three claims to highways because the County failed to file them in time.

Read the memorandum opinion and order on cross-motions for summary judgment.

Contacts

Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9622

Lisa Belenky, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 385-5694

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.