Court of Appeals clears way for conservationists to challenge Jarbidge Road settlement
An agreement between the Bush administration and anti-environmental groups in Nevada that gave the groups authority over a Forest Service trail in Nevada may get a fresh look because of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling published Monday. The appeals court granted Earthjustice and its clients The Wilderness Society and Great Old Broads for Wilderness the right to challenge a case where the Bush administration gave away environmental protections on public lands. The conservation groups will attempt to reopen the legal settlement and get the protections reinstated. At stake is the principle of who should have authority over lands owned by all Americans and in this case, the fate of federally protected bull trout.
"In this case the public's interests in protecting the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and the rare bull trout were sold out by the Bush administration," said Earthjustice attorney Susan Daggett. "They may think twice before making any more deals behind closed doors to sell out the public."
The case has potentially far-reaching impacts. The anti-environmental groups claimed they had a right under an 1860's era law to use and modify the road as they saw fit and had taken it upon themselves to remove a barrier installed by the Forest Service to close the trail and to partially rebuild the road with picks and shovels. A federal court recently found that the law only applies to roads that connect two destinations. This road went a mile and half to a dead-end. There are numerous cases across the western states and Alaska where anti-environmental groups are currently trying to lay claim to more public land citing the same law. The Bush administration's capitulation in this case echoes moves in Utah where they are secretly negotiating with the state to transfer public lands while public interest groups have been locked out of the process. As a backstop, the administration is also taking steps to change the rules governing future transfers of public lands.
"These are national lands that belong to all Americans and should not be managed for the privileged few. When local groups take control, too often they are bent on exploitation not preservation," said Pam Eaton, Regional Director for The Wilderness Society.
"We are all for hikers, hunters and fishermen and other members of the public accessing their lands in the national forests," said Susan Daggett of Earthjustice. "The court of appeals agreed that we are legitimate representatives of the people's interest in keeping special interests from taking over public lands and the people's voice should be heard."
The case became known in the press as the Jarbidge Road case after anti-environmental forces, known as the Shovel Brigade, rallied in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada to rebuild a portion of the Forest Service trail that washed out in a storm. The Forest Service had opposed the rebuilding effort because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found rebuilding the road would harm dwindling numbers of federally protected bull trout that inhabit the Jarbidge River.
Under the prior administration, the Forest Service sued the anti-environmental groups for illegally digging and modifying the landscape in the national forest.
When the Bush administration came to power they quickly abandoned the environmentally protective position of the Forest Service and instead settled the suit on terms favorable to the anti environmental forces. At this point conservation groups filed a motion to intervene in the case in order to challenge this settlement. A federal district judge ruled against the conservation groups who then successfully appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to be allowed into the case.