A coalition of environmental groups today filed legal papers to oppose a federal lawsuit by Inyo County that could let bulldozers cut new roads through Death Valley National Park, the largest national park in the lower 48 states.
Intervention papers were filed in U.S. District Court, Fresno by Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm representing the coalition. The environmental groups seek the right to defend the park against the proposed road building.
Inyo County filed suit in October seeking rights-of-way for highways through park wilderness, the right to tear down Park Service barriers and the right to build new two-lane highways in roadless desert canyons and valleys. Building highways in these areas would permanently disrupt the desert stillness of Death Valley National Park and threaten the imperiled desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep and other park wildlife, as well as one of the park’s most important petroglyph (ancient rock art) sites.
“Routes” named in the Inyo County lawsuit would run through Greenwater Canyon, Greenwater Valley and Last Chance Canyon, all of which have been protected from damaging off-road vehicle use since at least 1994. All three areas were found to be “roadless” in 1979, and were designated as wilderness when Death Valley National Park was created in 1994.
“It’s in the public interest to ensure that the natural and archeological treasures in Death Valley National Park are protected. This is our legacy for future generations,” said Deborah DeMeo, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “This suit threatens to destroy one of the parks’ main attractions — it’s stark, pristine desert beauty.”
“These wilderness areas in Death Valley National Park established by Congress reflect the strong national interest in seeing their integrity protected,” said George Barnes of the Sierra Club. Barnes is one of the key citizens who helped obtain national park status for Death Valley.
Inyo County greatly benefits from recreation and tourism in Death Valley National Park and other regional wilderness areas, said Paul McFarland, director of Friends of the Inyo. “It’s a shame that the Board of Supervisors has chosen to spend scarce local and national taxpayer money attacking one of America’s most popular natural icons, especially when there is so much real need all across our National Parks system and on public lands. Visitors and locals alike need open campgrounds and maintained trails, not divisive lawsuits.” The National Park Service estimates Death Valley National Park contributed over $35 million dollars to the local economy in 2005.
“The park is one of the few desert areas in California where wildlife populations are protected from habitat fragmentation caused by roads and motorized vehicle use,” said Lisa Belenky, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the coalition members. “The county’s lawsuit could undermine that protection.”
Inyo County’s action is the latest attempt by off-road organizations, counties and states throughout the West to take over little-used tracks on federal lands on the basis of a Civil War-era law called R.S. 2477 that was repealed 30 years ago, said Ted Zukoski, attorney for Earthjustice.
“Use of this ancient, repealed law threatens to degrade some of America’s most spectacular lands, from the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, and Canyonlands National Park and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, to Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. And now Death Valley’s natural wonders are under attack,” Zukoski said.
Organizations represented by Earthjustice in this legal action include The Sierra Club, Friends of the Inyo, California Wilderness Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association.
View a map of the region at issue
Read the submission to the court