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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."


Kudo's to Earth Justice, a job well done! These stalwarts for the National Parks deserve are high praise and hardy thanks.

Kudos to Judge O'Neill! We can't afford to loose any more pristine parkland than we already have ( Alaska ) because someone feels they have the right to ruin God's wilderness. I enjoy Death Vally and go there as often as I can. The National Park Service does a fine job. Keep up the good work.

The judge ruling the parties had no standing is not the same as the judge ruling that Suprise Canyon is a road, or no road. The judge merely felt that his court was not the place to make that decision.

It is a temporary win for the "no-road" people, and delays any eventual final determination. But the story isn't over yet.

I have a copy of an old photo of a 1950's era Buick sitting in front of the ruins of the mill at Panamint, and indeed, there are old, 2-wheel drive cars sitting up there as I type this. They were not flown in by helicopter.

The fact that the miners, and Inyo County, have not maintained the road as of late does not change it's status.

I personally passed 2 four-wheel drive vehicles driving up the road while back-packing down-canyon from Panamint as late as the year 2000.

What keeps being lost in all these articles about Surprise Canyon is that the current road through the narrowest part of the canyon was dynamited out of solid rock back in the 1870's. Historical references indicate that the "canyon" was little more that a narrow slot prior to that, barely wide enough for a single horse and rider to pass through. What folks want to call a "miracle" or "natural wonder" today was forever altered by man more than 100 years ago, expressly for the purpose of creating a road passable by animal-drawn wagons, and later, gasoline and diesel powered vehicles.

Anyone who has actually been there, and is honest with him/herself, knows in their heart that there is a road up Surprise Canyon, regardless of which side of the issue they side with.

I concur with OB's comments: There is most surely a road up Surprise Cyn. I suspect that the majority of people who claim that there is no road up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City have never been to the area. If anyone has information on any other roads opened for vehicular traffic into Panamint City, which by the way has numerous private resdencies, Please e-mail me the route or provide me with a map showing the alternate route. P.S. I have numerous maps showing the Surprise Canyon Road in existance to this day.
P.S. George you statement strike me as being one of an "elitist mentality". I'm sure your a nice person but are you saying that My dad, by driving up the Surprise Canyon Road (maintained by the County) during the period from 1937 - 1972 was ruining God's wilderness. I cannot belive that there was ever any INTENT on anyone's part when they made the ascent/descent to PC to ruin the wilderness after the severe washout that precipitated this rather insane issue. It should prove to be an interesting event when my wife and I visit PC soon. I don't mind the hike but my wife's wheelchair may need to be motorized and a warn winch attached. So much for equal access. Rebuilding the road could have helped.

If it wasn't a road, why was the "road" cherry stemmed in the Desert Protection Act of 1994?
This is nothing but a BS response in bed with the eco elitists!

To: Chair, California Desert District Advisory Council
C/O Bureau of Land Management
6221 Box Springs Blvd
Riverside, CA 92505

From: Packrat

Subject: Panamint Valley, Surprise Canyon

Date: January 29, 2003

I am absolutely disgusted that the BLM, out of Ridgecrest no less, has installed a barrier at the mouth of Surprise Canyon to prevent vehicles from driving beyond the Chris Wicht Camp and on up to Panamint City.

All of this because The Center for Biological Diversity has filled a law suite against the BLM for failure to implement a environmental protection measurement?

What this equates to me is that the BLM has stopped all vehicular traffic from using this
RS 2477 designated road. A Court injunction should be filled immediately against the Center for Biological Diversity, to allow vehicular traffic to use this road to Panamint City, whilst the Environmental Impact Report is being established.

Its like saying the people, with their vehicles, that use this RS 2477 road are GUILTY of using a one hundred year old road and will not be allowed to access Panamint City. The people and vehicles should be allowed to use this road whilst the BLM is preparing the EIR.

Furthermore, for the two sections of the, so-called “stream”, are being considered for designation as a “Wild and Scenic River” are completely ridiculous. Anyone with any notion of common sense would not even think this way. Do you think the general public really believes this? If that were the case then would the California Department of Fish and Game require boat permits to use this so called river. I don’t think so!

Being that The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit against the BLM, and the BLM has, in turn, closed off this road to Panamint City, is another classic case of big government closing areas to the general public, let alone the private landowners up in
Panamint City, CA.

In summary I would like to say the following as a matter of public record:

1. I am against the closure of this RS 2477 road going up to Panamint City, which is in the Death Valley National Park system.

2. I am against the BLM for even considering that this “Rivulet” of water would
be even be considered as a wild and scenic river.

3. I am against the Center of Biological Diversity for filling the lawsuit for the
BLM’s failure to produce a EIR, in an efficient manner. This is just another
waste of taxpayer money!



Epilogue: I still stand to this day on what I sent the BLM in the year of 2003
Been up to Panamint City many times, but not after the summer of
1984. The Government, Environmental people, etc., have way too
much to say and keep on locking all of us Desert folk out of the area,
with the exception of walking and enough is enough...

Been up to Panamint City many times, but not after the summer of 1984.

I don't understand why yer yappin about not being able to drive your ATVs into the canyon when you haven't been there in 23 years!

This sure is interesting. Access to Panamint City is as it was when the first prospectors showed up and chased the local Indians away. You gotta walk!

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