Sagebrush rebels grab their shovels

In a parable of the New West, Nevadans want to clear off an old dirt road and reopen it, but the Forest Service says that would hurt wildlife.

As Americans begin celebrating Independence Day this weekend, many people in one Nevada community will be demonstrating the kind of dissent that got those early patriots into trouble with the English crown. No pitchforks or muskets involved, but many shovels will be taken up as a form of protest against what is alleged to be Uncle Sam's "war on the West."

The dispute centers on a short stretch of unpaved road in a national forest just south of the Nevada-Idaho border. Officials in Nevada's Elko County say the road - which began as a trail for native Americans and then carried trappers and prospectors - is their responsibility. The United States Forest Service, with the legal muscle of the US Justice Department behind it, says it has control.

But beyond this one episode of political wrangling is the much broader "sagebrush rebellion," pitting traditional Western interests such as ranching and logging against federal efforts to strengthen environmental protections on hundreds of millions of acres of federal land - a trend that has accelerated under the Clinton administration.

The drama began several years ago when the Jarbidge River flooded, washing out a portion of South Canyon Road. County bulldozers were brought in to open up the road again. But the Forest Service declared that the road should remain closed (and tore up 900 feet of it) in order to protect the habitat of a species of trout threatened with extinction.

Western story

The controversial move was part of a wider pattern. Under pressure from environmental critics, the Forest Service has been obliterating some of the hundreds of thousands of decades-old unpaved roads it has cut into forests around the West - roads that provide access to recreationists as well as firefighters and loggers, but that also cause widespread erosion and other environmental damage.

Particularly in a state like Nevada, where the federal government manages 87 percent of the land, this rankles local officials and their supporters. Many have formed a "shovel brigade," protesting Forest Service action by toting spades - a symbol of their desire to clear closed roads of the debris and dirt that make them impassable.

"We don't want important issues concerning land use, wilderness, and roads to be decided by faraway bureaucrats who don't answer to the voters," says Demar Dahl, a rancher who heads the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade. "The arrogance of those who closed this road, and the lack of any remedy for the people, either through negotiations or congressional hearings, have given many of us here in the West the determination to open the road ourselves."

As word of the protest spread, property-rights and local-control advocates from around the country began offering their support. Some 12,000 shovels were sent to Elko, and a giant shovel with supporters' names inscribed on it now leans against the county courthouse as a symbol of dissent.

All of this has brought a sharp response from federal officials charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other laws designed to safeguard the environment.

"Any violation of these laws carries with it significant criminal and civil sanction for the Shovel Brigade as well as for its individual officers, directors, trustees, and members," said US Attorney Kathryn Landreth in a recent warning aimed straight at Mr. Dahl and other protest leaders.

For example, Ms. Landreth said in a letter to Dahl, "A knowing violation of the Clean Water Act alone carries with it civil penalties of up to $27,500 per day of violation and criminal sanctions of up to three years imprisonment or a fine of $5,000 to $50,000 per day of violation or both."

Escalating tensions

As the sagebrush rebellion has grown, many agency employees in small communities like Elko have found themselves in increasingly uncomfortable situations.

"Employees there described numerous situations over the past three years where Forest Service employees and their families have been subject to various forms and degrees of intimidation, harassment, and verbal abuse," according to a recent study by Forest Service investigators.

"Many current northeast Nevada employees and former employees reported being treated disrespectfully and being exposed to highly embarrassing situations by community members," wrote the report's authors. "Employees spoke of incidents where, while doing field work, they encountered people whose actions or language they considered threatening, causing them to be afraid for their well-being."

While local, state, and federal authorities say they are prepared for the upcoming protest (scheduled for July 3 and 4), they know that feelings are running very high in the area.

"I have a major concern for the safety of all involved," says Elko County Sheriff Neil Harris, who expects that radical groups will try to attach themselves to what organizers vow will be a peaceful protest. "With limited manpower and the remoteness of the area, policing this event will be next to impossible."

Environmental groups are expected to avoid the area during the planned protest - with one exception. That's a group of older women who call themselves the "Great Old Broads for Wilderness." Based in Utah, but with some 2,500 members around the country, this group of self-described "little old ladies" mixes environmental advocacy with humor.

As they have done in places where recreational vehicles have torn up the countryside, group members intend to show up at South Canyon Road with brooms "to clean up the mess."

"We intend to be there," says Susan Tixier a grandmother and retired lawyer from Escalante, Utah. "We're not confrontational, but we're probably the only environmental group that wouldn't blanch in the face of this testosterone-laden protest."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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