The ruling (issued 6/14/2007) allows six conservation groups -- represented by Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm -- to intervene in the suit by Inyo County to open roads through remote desert in three areas of Death Valley, the largest national park in the lower 48 states.
"This is a good day for Death Valley," said George Barnes, a Sierra Club volunteer who has worked to protect the California desert for nearly 40 years. "The court's ruling means the folks who have worked for decades to preserve this magnificent desert will be there to defend it from attack."
The county is seeking rights-of-way so that it can tear down Park Service barriers and build two-lane highways in roadless desert canyons and valleys. Such road activities would permanently disrupt the desert stillness and threaten imperiled desert tortoise, as well as one of the park's most important petroglyph sites.
U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii said the conservation groups have an obvious interest in protecting the park's natural values, and therefore have a right to help fight efforts that would imperil the wilderness.
By contrast, Judge Ishii noted, the National Park Service -- which Inyo County sued -- is forced to balance competing interests in determining how the park may be used. As a result, the NPS may not be bound to "preserve the wilderness character of the lands adjacent to the contested rights-of-way," Judge Ishii said.
"Inyo County's land grab could undermine the very reasons Death Valley is such an iconic American landscape: its quiet, its beauty, its wildness," said Ted Zukoski, attorney at Earthjustice. "The court understood that, and understood that those with the strongest interest in protecting Death Valley should have a seat at the table."
"Routes" mentioned in the suit include Petro Road, Last Section Road, and Last Chance Road. All three areas have been protected from off-road vehicle use for over a decade, and were found to be "roadless" in 1979.
"Death Valley provides refuge for over one thousand kinds of plants and rare animals, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Maintaining roadless areas is a critical step in protecting these creatures who cannot speak for themselves," said Chris Kassar, wildlife biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. "At least now such magnificent and imperiled species as the desert bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise will have a voice."
Inyo County is one of many governmental agencies and special interests that are laying claim to federal lands under a repealed Civil War-era law known as R.S. 2477.
"Use of this old loophole is spreading. It threatens some of America's most cherished lands, from Canyonlands and Zion National Parks in Utah to Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. And now Death Valley's natural wonders are at risk," said Kristen Brengel, of The Wilderness Society.
"We must protect and maintain the legacy of natural quiet in our national parks for future generations," said Deborah DeMeo, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The groups permitted to join the suit are: the Sierra Club, Friends of the Inyo, California Wilderness Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, The Wilderness Society, and the National Parks Conservation Association.
Read the opinion (PDF)