Federal Judge Refuses to Let County Cut Highways in Roadless Section of Death Valley National Park
A desire by county officials in California to cut roads in roadless areas of Death Valley National Park has been doused by a federal judge, who says the officials missed their opportunity years ago.
Back in October of 2006 Inyo County filed a lawsuit claiming it was within its rights to maintain the rights-of-way for the two stretches of "highway" that the county contends have been recognized as county highways for decades. Under the county's plan, the roads would run through Greenwater Canyon, Greenwater Valley, and Last Chance Canyon. Those areas were designated as wilderness when Death Valley was given national park status in 1994. Today the areas are home to desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep and other park wildlife. There are also rock art sites in the areas.
County officials had hoped to take control of the routes using a repealed, 19th-century right-of-way law known as R.S. 2477. They sought rights-of-way in hopes of tearing down National Park Service barriers and initially asked for the right to build two-lane highways in roadless desert canyons and valleys.
But in ruling on August 8, U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii held that the county waited too long to assert its claims to the three roads within the national park because they were included in wilderness study areas by the federal Bureau of Land Management in 1979. He agreed with arguments by conservation groups and the National Park Service that the county’s claims were barred because it had failed to file its lawsuit within the 12-year statute of limitations. The court thus dismissed the county’s claims to all of one route and most of the other two routes.
"I think overall it's a very, very good ruling," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represented the conservation groups that intervened on behalf of the National Park Service: the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Friends of the Inyo, California Wilderness Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, and the National Parks Conservation Association.
“When Congress made Death Valley a national park in 1994, it set aside these areas for all Americans to enjoy as quiet, natural, and free from damaging dirt bikes, ATVs, and other off-road vehicles. The court’s ruling will help ensure that Congress’s promise to the American people will be kept,” said Mr. Zukoski.
Areas that will be preserved
Greenwater Canyon, on the east side of the national park, is rugged, narrow, and deep, carving a twisting course through volcanic rock. Forty-two prehistoric sites containing more than 300 important petroglyphs are found in the canyon, which also provides habitat for desert bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.
Before the canyon was included in the park in 1994, land managers recognized its importance by naming it an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” to protect “prehistoric occupation sites still important to Native Americans.” One of Inyo County’s claimed “highways” would have cut through the canyon for about 10 miles.
The court’s decision threw out the county’s claim to all of the routes inside the canyon.
Greenwater Valley, to the south of Greenwater Canyon, is covered with lush, dense vegetation, including creosote, sagebrush, bunch grasses, seasonal wildflowers, and cactus. The area includes important habitat for the Black Mountain bighorn sheep herd and desert tortoise.
When Inyo County illegally bulldozed a three-mile route across an abandoned jeep track in 2004, the Park Service revegetated both ends of the route to restore the area’s natural values.
The court’s decision threw out Inyo County’s claim to all of the route.
Last Chance Canyon, at the northern end of Death Valley, is a remote and scenic area that is home to cougar, deer, coyote, and badger. Inyo County claimed a 10-mile “highway” runs up the canyon, which narrows into a boulder-choked, tree-strewn gulch. At the head of this gully, the county claims their “highway” ascends a nearly vertical 50- to 200-foot ridge of unstable rock. Cutting a two-lane highway across this rugged terrain would permanently and significantly scar the landscape. The court’s decision threw out Inyo County’s claim to all but the northern half-mile of the route.
All three of these areas were inventoried and found to be “roadless” in 1979, and were designated as wilderness when Death Valley National Park was created in 1994.
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