A 6-year legal battle to save some of Death Valley National Park’s wilderness areas from development paid off this week.
The national park (biggest in the lower 48) is in Inyo County, California. Inyo County asserted it had legal title to several dirt paths in the park under a Civil War-era federal law intended to promote highway construction across the west. This law, which gave local governments legal rights of way to highways that had been constructed within their jurisdiction, was repealed in 1976. Inyo County sued to gain title to the paths and Earthjustice attorneys Ted Zukoski and Melanie Kay intervened in the case to preserve the wilderness.
Inyo County called one of the paths in question the “Last Chance Road,” but it might as well have been called the “Road to Nowhere.” The route was little more than a sandy desert streambed for much of its path, and then it veered to two or three different destinations, depending on which maps you looked at—a point Earthjustice’s Zukoski and Kay made to the judge. Wash bottoms and little-used paths that don’t go any place in particular don’t count as “highways” under the law.
In the end, the judge found the county missed the deadline for laying claim to most of the paths and didn’t have legitimate claims to the other because they just weren’t highways by any stretch of the imagination.
As a result, Death Valley will be spared the bulldozers and road graders that otherwise might have scarred it. Among the beneficiaries of this victory for the environment are not only visitors to the national park, but also the bighorn sheep, cougar, deer, coyote, badger and desert tortoise, and many other rare plants and wildlife.
Six conservation groups—Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, California Wilderness Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Inyo—were represented by Earthjustice in this case.
Inyo County’s claimed Last Chance "highway" starts in the center foreground. The post in the center of the photo is a Park Service sign indicating vehicles are not permitted in designated wilderness.
(Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice)
Desert tortoises are one of the many wildlife residents of Death Valley who will be spared disrupting and damaging activity from bulldozers and road graders. (NPS)