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Elko: Life Under
The Federal Thumb

The Forest Service Produces
One Big Fish Story After Another

by Don Bowman

uring Arts.

Back in 1964, when Congress established the Jarbidge Wilderness, the people of the town of Jarbidge had no idea the federal government would one day be trying to keep them out of what historically had been the community park. In that earlier era, residents were able to drive the four or so miles to the landmark Perkins Cabin on a well-maintained road that even boasted three strong bridges across the Jarbidge River. But today, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is denying those people or anyone else using that canyon the historical access that everyone in the past took for granted.

Under the federal Wilderness Act, before a designation may be made the area in question must first of all be roadless. From all indications, the forest service is attempting to expand several wilderness areas in Nevada without meeting that requirement. Each time agency officials arbitrarily close roads, they thus award themselves more power, since they now exert authority over more people and more land. But it has not been until the past few years that any significant protests arose over the locking up of such land.

Mel Steninger, now retired as the publisher of the Elko Daily Free Press, says back in the 1950s he and his wife would drive to the Perkins Cabin and camp there. Though no one claimed ownership of the cabin, visitors always left it stocked with firewood and food—for the next visitor or for anyone who might need emergency shelter. Steninger says the road to the cabin was in pretty good shape then, over four decades ago.

The land status map of Nevada shows that when the Jarbidge Wilderness was first established in the ’60s, the designated wilderness area did not include several locales that the forest service now claims. They include the South Fork drainage of the Jarbidge River, the Perkins Cabin and the Norman mine at the head of the river. Later, in 1989, another congressional act did expand the wilderness by another 50 percent to a point about two miles north of the Perkins Cabin. There, the forest service closed the road, built a modern outdoor restroom, erected an information board and provided a turnaround and parking for wilderness visitors.

Now the agency is trying to close off those improvements—improvements that it itself made—along with another mile and a half of the road to Jarbidge. If successful, the scheme will call the additional acreage “roadless” and expand federal jurisdiction and powers even more.

National Attention

The community of Jarbidge—and Elko County generally—is being ground under the federal thumb over an issue that appears to many people thoroughly absurd. Although the road itself clearly belongs to the county—it long predates even the origin of the federal forest agency—Elko County is being threatened with huge fines for attempting to repair a washed-out section on the way to the turnaround. 

This is why a work crew of citizens from all over Nevada spontaneously organized in October under Assemblyman John Carpenter, attorney Grant Gerber and businessman Chris Johnson. Saying they would fix the road themselves with pick and shovel, members of the volunteer work party gained national attention before a shovelful of dirt was even turned.

That angered Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora, who went on Elko radio suggesting that anyone attempting to open the road could lose his or her home and liberty. 

Flora has since resigned her post, effective “shortly after the first of the year.” Although Associated Press stories out of Reno portrayed her resignation as a protest against “fed bashing” by Nevadans, the truth is that Flora had already destroyed her own credibility. A Clinton adminstration favorite, she had come to the Silver State from an agency post in Montana, where she had ignored staff recommendations in order to side with radical environmentalists eager to ban any kind of gas and oil exploration. Once in Nevada, Flora at first responded to Elko distress over her agency’s actions with cold stonewalling and then with her own inflammatory rhetoric: Congressman Jim Gibbons was guilty of  “misrepresentation,” Assemblyman Carpenter had incited an act of “eco-terrorism,” and Elko County commissioners, “put their thumbs up, say ‘I agree’ and then turn around ... and call you names.”

Flora also seemed to have the distinct idea that she was supreme over not only the Nevada public but also virtually everyone in sight: the U.S. Forest Service was engaged in a “charade of normalcy,” the congressional hearing arranged by Gibbons was “a public inquisition,” and Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage had a “conflict of interest” since she recently married Wayne Hage, a Nye County rancher who is suing the forest service. (Doug Crandall, majority staff director on Chenoweth’s committee, noted that Hage had been “looking into this issue long before Ms. Flora took her post on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest or [the congresswoman’s] marriage to Wayne Hage.”)

“We (the USFS) are in an awkward position,” said Flora. Her agency, she says, is handcuffed by congressional acts and law by which it has to abide. “There are demands by Congress for reporting on everything we own,” and everyone in the nation has a say in how forest lands are managed.

A Mouth Full of Sediment

T o further damage her credibility, Flora kept demonstrating fundamental ignorance of the on-the-ground facts, while making other statements people found preposterous. There were no campgrounds above the washed-out portion of the road, she said, though in fact there are two developed camp sites and an outhouse there. The county had gone in and “moved the channel” of the Jarbidge River, said Flora, creating “an irrigation ditch full of sediment”—a charge that on-the-scene observers agreed was completely false. Finally, said the supervisor, Elko County Commissioners had secretly agreed with her back in April that the road “could not be built.”

“A bald-faced lie,” said Chairman Tony Lesperance. “Libelous and slanderous,” said Commissioner Brad Roberts. Commissioners Nolan Lloyd and Mike Nannini also said Flora was wrong.

Given Flora’s behavior—and the fact that U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan were scurrying about trying to put a lid on the rapidly escalating situation—it was not surprising that by the first few days of November, word was already surfacing that Flora would soon “resign.”

Just a single day prior to the start of the pick-and-shovel road repair project, forest service lawyers obtained an injunction from a federal judge in Reno, arguing that work on the road might constitute a “taking” of the allegedly threatened bull trout—a listing that the Nevada Division of Wildlife calls a farce. Flora then took it upon herself to “notify” radio and television stations that the event had been called off and the stations should tell people not to show up. In truth, a rally and a barbeque were still scheduled and organizers Carpenter, Gerber and Johnson had to scramble to make sure people knew.

So despite the supervisor’s efforts, many journalists still came and heard the people of Jarbidge give their side of the case. The free barbeque had been thrown by the town of Jarbidge in gratitude to everyone who had come to support the road opening. Offered were all the pork ribs, beans, salad and desserts one could consume. Radio, television and print news media arrived in force from Salt Lake, Reno and Twin Falls, Idaho. Everyone in sight was interviewed except representatives from the USFS, who made no appearance.

Parallels with the BIA

One favorite subject for interviews was Elwood Mose, Te-Moak Indian tribal chairman, who attended the rally to personally endorse the road-opening. Articulate and well-informed, Mose said he sees a growing correlation between the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs treats Indians and the methods the federal land management agencies are using against Nevadans and other Westerners.

“We (Indians), like the people of Elko County, exist under a bureaucracy that doesn’t utilize common sense,” he said. “We are ruled by some person’s idea of social order.” Suggesting that the people of Jarbidge were losing the right to determine how they should live in their own country, Mose said “It’s a sad day when they (federal attorneys) go before a federal judge and tell lies.”

Assemblyman Carpenter says that when the Department of Justice, in behalf of the USFS, obtained the injunction from the federal court, it was done with bogus statements from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He believes that the bull trout is being improperly used as leverage to prevent use of the road. If the trend continues, he worried, “They would be able to use the bull trout to close the entire canyon.”  [See accompanying article.]

Touring the canyon road, Carpenter also said the USFS violated the law when it obliterated a part of the road the county had repaired. Attorney Gerber—who promises that the fight to open the road will continue—says that the $400,000 bill the Forest Service sent to Elko—for obliterating a 100 yards of road—was ridiculous. The whole road to the turnaround could be fixed by the county for about $30,000, he said.

So, there is going to be a court battle to prove who has jurisdiction over the road. As usual, the fight will pit a bullying and dishonest federal agency, wielding unlimited financial and legal resources, against the financially strapped but honest citizens of Elko County.

Will it resolve anything?

We’ll have to see. On one level the whole tussle is an absurd waste of money over a minuscule problem that a little common sense could easily fix. But, as Rep. Chenoweth-Hage has noted, the U.S. Forest Service has increasingly shown itself over recent decades to be a fundamentally “broken agency.” If some light can be shown on that problem, the expense could be worthwhile.   NJ

Don Bowman is a rancher, miner and journalist who lives in Fallon. Steven Miller also contributed to this story.


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