Elko County delays on mediation tax patience of Justice Department

Elko County's delay in accepting a proposed settlement to end a feud with the federal government over a washed-out dirt road and a threatened fish is taxing the patience of Justice Department officials who warned that the option is a lengthy, costly court battle.

''The failure of the Elko County Commission to ratify the settlement agreement is a rejection of the mediation in favor of litigation,'' government attorneys said in a statement released Thursday by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Las Vegas.

''It is unfortunate that Elko County has passed up the opportunity to resolve this issue in a way that would have been a win-win for all parties.''

Government lawyers will decide how to proceed within the next few weeks, the statement said.

The Justice Department comments were in response to an Elko County Commission meeting Wednesday night. For the second time in two weeks, commissioners tabled action on the proposed settlement over South Canyon Road and the threatened bull trout in Jarbidge.

Commissioner Mike Nannini called the four-hour commission meeting ''a learning and venting experience.''

Nannini, who's concerned about the cost of a drawn-out court fight, suggested asking voters if they'd support a tax increase to pay for litigation. He said his motion failed on a 3-2 vote.

''It definitely concerns me,'' Nannini said. ''It could be real expensive.

''I think the process we went through is a good one,'' he said of the mediation effort that involved the U.S. Forest Service, the Justice Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Elko County, and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, among others.

''I think we should try to settle this the best we can,'' Nannini said.

Forest Supervisor Bob Vaught expressed disappointment about the continued delay in ratifying the settlement, which was first considered and postponed by commissioners June 28.

''The Forest Service is eager to reach agreement in this matter and begin work on the Environmental Impact Statement,'' Vaught said.

''While I understand the issue for some is one of county sovereignty and county rights, I remain hopeful that we can work together cooperatively to accomplish mutual objectives,'' Vaught said.

The road in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest was washed out by a flood in 1995. Locals claim the Forest Service has no jurisdiction over the road because it was there long before Congress established the National Forest in the early 1900s.

Three years after the flood, a county road crew began to make repairs but stopped when ordered to by state and federal authorities.

The U.S. Forest and Fish and Wildlife services argued the 1.5-mile dirt road that leads to campgrounds, an outhouse and a wilderness area could not be rebuilt without harming the southernmost population of bull trout, a threatened species that lives in the adjacent Jarbidge River.

U.S. District Judge David Hagen ordered all parties into mediation. The proposed settlement would absolve the county from potential fines for any alleged environmental damage caused by its 1998 road work and give it a right-of-way - but not ownership - of the road.

The agreement also would allow the road to be rebuilt, but only if Environmental Impact Statements conclude it can be done without harming the fish that depends on cold, clear water for its survival.

South Canyon Road has come to symbolize the friction between some rural westerners and the federal government over the control of public lands.

Over the July Fourth holiday, hundreds gathered at the remote road site to reopen a portion of the road with picks and shovels.

Participants at the rally organized by a citizens' group called the Shovel Brigade dislodged a multi-ton boulder the Forest Service had used to prevent motorized vehicles from using the road.

Federal authorities are assessing the protesters' work to determine if Endangered Species or Clean Water act violations occurred. If so, government lawyers have said organizers could face charges.


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