Group challenges road deal
RENO, Nev. (AP) – Trout Unlimited leaders say the Forest Service is negotiating away federally mandated protection of the threatened bull trout in a deal that could allow Elko County to rebuild a controversial road in a national forest.
The nation’s largest trout conservation group condemned the proposed settlement with the county and private property activists who organized a ”Shovel Brigade” rebellion aimed at rebuilding the washed out road in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
The tentative agreement is the product of a year’s worth of court-ordered mediation, stemming from the Justice Department’s attempts to seek damages from the county and prosecute potential violators of environmental laws protecting the fish in the Jarbidge River.
It is being viewed as an early test of the Bush administration’s approach to balancing environmental protections with private property rights.
”There’s no question in my mind that the change in administration had something to do with reaching the agreement,” State Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, one of the principal negotiators, said in an interview. ”I think we are going to be able to work with this new administration.”
Leaders of Trout Unlimited, with 125,000 members nationwide, said Monday they will file a lawsuit if necessary to protect the bull trout.
They said the proposed settlement marks a sharp reversal by the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, whose fish biologists insisted over the past five years that reconstruction of the South Canyon Road near the Idaho border would pose a threat to the survival of the southernmost surviving population of the bull trout in North America.
”All law-abiding citizens in the United States should be alarmed that the Forest Service chose to negotiate with lawbreakers rather than enforce the federal laws that protect the land that belongs to all of us,” said Scott Yates, Trout Unlimited’s Western native trout director, based in Portland, Ore.
”This will only encourage future violations of the law in similar disputes and further intimidation of federal officials,” he said.
The former supervisor of the national forest, Gloria Flora, resigned in 1999 in protest of what she said was an ”anti-federal fervor in Nevada.” She said there was a pattern of threats and intimidation of agency workers trying to protect the fish and enforce environmental laws in Elko County.
Her successor, Bob Vaught, has emphasized a cooperative approach toward finding a solution that would allow reconstruction of the road while still protecting the fish.
The county has maintained the Forest Service has no jurisdiction over the road within the national forest because the road was there before the government set the land aside in the early 1900s.
The tentative agreement, still to be approved by regional federal agency heads, would require the county to comply with all environmental laws in rebuilding the road. The project would be subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Trout Unlimited says if the laws are followed, the road is unlikely to be rebuilt because they doubt the county can meet the NEPA standards.
”We’ve been down this road before. The Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service have concluded that the road cannot be rebuilt without harming the bull trout,” Yates said. ”Reversing those conclusions now would require more backflips than an Olympic gymnast.”
Forest Service spokeswoman Erin O’Connor said Monday the agency had no direct response to Trout Unlimited’s criticism.
”Any action to re-establish the South Canyon Road will follow and comply with all applicable environmental laws,” she said.
Carpenter said he doesn’t believe the county will end up having to comply with the NEPA review because most of the work will be done by hand at a level unlikely to impact the environment.
But Jeff Curtis, Trout Unlimited’s Western conservation director, said his group would consider a lawsuit to force a NEPA review. It was Trout Unlimited’s intervention that first prompted the Forest Service to rescind its initial plans to rebuild the road after it washed out in 1995.
”The change in administration certainly affects the policy of the government, but it doesn’t change the law,” Curtis said Monday. ”When it comes to building the road – regardless of the administration – they cannot ignore NEPA or the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act.”
On the Net:
Trout Unlimited: http://www.tu.org/
Shovel Brigade: http://www.jarbidgeshovelbrigade.com/
Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest: http://www.fs.fed.us/htnf/
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