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Judge Tosses Surprise Canyon Lawsuit

Surprise Canyon

A federal judge has tossed out a lawsuit aiming to open Surprise Canyon to ORV traffic. Wilderness Society Photo.

A federal judge has tossed out a lawsuit aimed at turning a unique canyon on the western edge of Death Valley National Park into a road for four-wheelers. Judge Lawrence O'Neill ruled that the parties that brought the lawsuit had no standing on the issue.

When most think of Death Valley, they envision starkness, sand dunes, and saltpan. But Surprise Canyon is definitely different, with a tumbling stream, lush vegetation, and wildlife lured by the water.

Now, according to documents in this case, in the 1870s there actually was a road that ran up the canyon to reach the silver mines of Panamint City. Supposedly the six-mile route was in such good condition at the time that stagecoaches could travel it. Well, the silver boom went bust in 1877, Panamint City turned into a ghost town of sorts, and the Surprise Canyon route wasn't maintained. Indeed, it was washed out at times by flash floods.

Now, there were improvements made in 1918, 1924, and 1947-48, according to the court. However, flash floods continued to erase them.

Back in the 1980s, some off-roaders discovered the canyon and figured it was a perfect playground, even if it did require the use of winches and impromptu rock ramps to help negotiate the waterfalls. But in 2001, as the result of litigation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management closed the lower section of the canyon to ORV traffic, and in 2002 the National Park Service closed the upper stretch.

Last year some off-road groups went to court to open the canyon, saying it really was a "highway" that they have a right to under a Civil War-era statute known today simply as R.S. 2477. Under that statute, initially created to further western expansion, some states, counties and off-road groups have claimed that washes, two-tracks, even hiking trails are "highways" that they are entitled to travel.

Well, yesterday U.S. District Judge O'Neill tossed their lawsuit, ruling that they had no standing to bring the lawsuit since they had no title to claim to the route. Not surprisingly, the groups who sided with the government in the case applauded the judge's decision.

“It’s a great day for Surprise Canyon and Death Valley National Park,” says Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, representing six conservation groups involved in the case. “This place is a miracle — a gushing stream running through the desert. We’re pleased the court denied an attempt to turn this marble canyon’s waterfalls into a highway.”

"Today the court took an important step toward protecting Surprise Canyon and the web of life it supports,” said Chris Kassar, wildlife biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The special character of this desert oasis strikes you as soon as you step in — cool water fills your shoes, flycatchers flit from branch to branch, and thick stands of willows and cottonwoods sway in the breeze against a backdrop of steep, multicolored cliff walls."

“We are thrilled,” said Deborah DeMeo, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The dismissal of this suit means that Surprise Canyon Creek in Death Valley National Park, and the habitat and wildlife that it supports, will be preserved for future generations to enjoy."


For the purposes of RS 2477, a "road" for access for miners that Original Bigfoot writes about, is not the same as a public "highway" as RS 2477 sanctions.

Miners have access to their mines. There is an constitutionally protected right of access. And, miners often improve their access roads.

But is that a public "highway" in the meaning of RS 2477?

RS 2477 was written so people moving west would not be blocked by private land holders. The US was handing out a lot of land in the West. The concern was, if someone claimed the land as a private homestead or mineral claim, that was the route of a wagon train or other public highway, they could effectively stop or extort from people traveling west. So, the idea was to allow the public highway to continue.

Access to a mine has nothing to do with a public highway. It is access to a mine. If the road was built for that purpose, that is not a public highway I believe.

Now, Original Bigfoot is right about the meaning of a court throwing a case out because it lacks standing to bring a suit. It is not a decision on the merits. But if the point is the state does not have standing, wouldn't that undermine the state's claims of their interpretation of RS 2477, that it provides state-owned right of access to and through federal land? After all, if the state does not have standing in such a case, who would have standing?

Sounds like the best case the state would have is on appeal, not by trying to find someone with standing to judge the merits, right?

A mining road is not a public highway.

Off road vehicle users; 4WD extremists have no right to this wilderness as now covered in the expanded Death Valley park. I hiked up to Panamint City in spring 2007, and it is a unique area with actual water running out the mouth of Surprise Cyn. I would'nt have liked it very much choking on the exhaust from some jerks trying to winch their way up a steep little gorge such as it is, with steel cables. Sure, maybe Edward Abbey took a Rambler up there back in the 60's before the 20 feet of gravel washed out( you can still see it clinging to the wall), and good for the good old days. If you want access to your silver deposits, do it like the old miners of the and take a mule up there, if you can even do that!

I too am a tax payer & I am also a DAV. I am a off-roader & a hiker. BLM land "is a land of many uses". There are several other near-by canyons that are open to off-roaders. I have hiked the canyon & found it very unique. I think even you would enjoy the peace & quite, wild life and scenic surroundings. It is quite a hike, but well worth the effort. The cabins were well maintained and hikers seem take very good care of them & the surrounding area. If you make the hike, there might even be enough supplies to allow you to stay overnight. Just in case your to tired to hike out the same day--just haul out your trash. There is running water & a lot of area to explore. I have also been to other places where I off-road. I usually have to spend a lot of my time hauling the trash out left by other off-roaders & other issues to numerous to mention here. There is plenty of land for all to enjoy. It is no more your land than it is for the people you try to put down & belittle. There are many sites on the INTERNET with pictures of the area. I have taken many & if you would like to see them let me know. If we didn't have rules, laws etc, there would not be any land for any of us to enjoy.

All you Californians... None of this would've taken place in Nevada. Death Valley and all your desert sites are overrated anyway. Get over it and move on. End of story.

Hey Frank and Ned,

I bet you both live in the San Francisco area with nothing more to do but drink your lattes and think of stuff to destroy the freedoms that we are supposed to have. Democrats obviously. More government with my latte please. Maybe we should be taxing the hell out of lattes since those cups are just filling up landfills and killing fish and birds. Wait, they don't go after that kind of stuff that would interrupt their lives.

The problem is with so many things in this state alone. We keep voting in the likes of Boxer and Feinstein. The 9th District court of appeals. What a ridiculous organization. We vote for something, they don't like it, so they throw it out. This is just another example.

Frank and Ned just love more government, oh and they just hate guns. Guns are evil too. People that want to enjoy the desert and the park systems are evil.

The comment on the frivilous law suits is correct. Another example, in part, of why the government, local to federal, is in the shape that it is in.

I have never been to Panamint City, but have been to many places in the area and that was my next trek. I am a native here and it kills me to see the likes of these "organizations (or is it organisms...a.k.a. parasites)" come in and tell me what I can and can't do. I pay my taxes and a hell of a lot of them. So, back off and go fight for this country like our fore-fathers did.

This comment was edited to remove gratuitous attacks and language.

Have you ever road a dirt bike? Do you know how much energy it takes to ride one? Do you know how healthy you have be to ride a dirt bike? Do you know this is about jeeps and not motorcycles? Do you even have a clue about what your talking about?

Please post a map showing the 97.5% of America that I can ride my ATV. I would like to go there. Who's makinr wild claims? Try 35% and getting smaller.

These people won't stop until the only place we're allowed to go is our living rooms playing video games and filing law suits. And who says" Kudos ", anymore?

Off roaders are the ones that pick up trash on the trails ie: toilet paper and water bottles. We treasure, clean, enjoy and experience these place with our friends and families. We take our children to these places and they take thiers. You people close it down , keeping us out of the natural cycle. In the mean time keeping us out of the places we love and enjoy, places many of you have never been or will ever go. Places that you will try to keep away from my children just to preserve your self rightous adjenda.

This comment was edited to remove gratuitous insults and language.

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