Judge Dismisses Inyo County Suit to Open Roads in Death Valley


County waited too long to press its claims


Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9622

A federal judge today largely threw out a suit by Inyo County to open highways through remote roadless areas of Death Valley National Park.  Inyo County had hoped to take control of three routes — little-used paths and canyon bottoms — using a repealed Civil War-era law known as RS2477.

The judge ruled that Inyo County waited too long to assert its claims to three roads within the National Park because they were included in a 1979 wilderness study by the Bureau of Land Management. The court agreed with conservation groups and the National Park Service that the county failed to file suit within the 12-year statute of limitations. The court thus dismissed the county’s claims to all of one route and to the vast majority of two others.

The ruling will protect desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, and remote archeological and cultural sites within Death Valley National Park. Earthjustice intervened in support of the National Park Service, representing the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, California Wilderness Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Inyo.

“This is a great day for Death Valley,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney for Earthjustice. “When Congress made Death Valley a national park in 1994, it set aside these areas for all Americans to enjoy as quiet, natural, and free from damaging dirt bikes, ATVs and other off-road vehicles. The court’s ruling will help ensure that Congress’s promise to the American people will be kept.”

“This decision protects the unique biological resources in Death Valley National Park from off-road vehicle abuse,” said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“I’ll bet the horned lizards and chuckwallas are dancing in the desert washes right now,” said Paul McFarland, executive director of Friends of the Inyo, a Bishop-based public lands conservation organization.

“Death Valley’s bighorn sheep and desert tortoise habitat are no place for highways. Without today’s decision, an obscure loophole might have destroyed this natural treasure, along with its wildlife and artifacts,” said Sierra Club representative Jim Dodson.

U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii said the county was on notice in 1979 that the federal government intended to restrict activities in these areas and would not allow the claimed routes to be paved or upgraded in a way that would impair wilderness values. The county sought rights-of-way in hopes of tearing down Park Service barriers and initially asked for the right to build two-lane highways in roadless desert canyons and valleys.

Areas that will be preserved:

  • Greenwater Canyon, on the east side of the National Park, is rugged, narrow, and deep, carving a twisting course through volcanic rock.  Forty-two prehistoric sites containing more than 300 important petroglyphs are found in the canyon, which also provides habitat for desert bighorn and desert tortoise.

  • Greenwater Valley, to the south of Greenwater Canyon, is covered with lush, dense vegetation, including creosote, sagebrush, bunch grasses, seasonal wildflowers and cactus. The area includes important habitat for the Black Mountain bighorn sheep herd and desert tortoise. Inyo County illegally bulldozed a 3-mile route across an abandoned jeep track in 2004.

  • Last Chance Canyon, at the northern end of Death Valley, is a remote and scenic area that is home to cougar, deer, coyote, and badger. Inyo County claimed a 10-mile “highway” runs up the canyon, which narrows into a boulder-choked, tree-strewn gulch.

All three of these areas were designated as wilderness when Death Valley National Park was created in 1994. Inyo County is one of many governmental agencies and private organizations which are laying claim to federal lands under RS 2477. 

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