Judge extends year-old mediation in Elko County dispute

RENO, Nev. - A federal judge extended a mediation deadline Wednesday in a high-profile dispute over a threatened fish and national forest road more than a year after he ordered the talks between the U.S. government and Elko County.

U.S. District Judge David Hagen granted most of a joint request from the county and the Justice Department to give both sides until January to resolve the fight over private property rights and jurisdiction of the washed out road in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Elko County Commissioner Mike Nannini said he was optimistic another round of mediation would prove successful. The county commission had voted last week to resume talks with the Justice Department in a teleconference Dec. 15 if Hagen would agree.

''We've done some good things through these talks. I think it is a positive thing,'' Nannini said Wednesday from Wells.

''Hopefully, we'll be able to get back into the mediation process,'' he said.

''I have a real problem spending taxpayer's dollars to fight this thing in court,'' said Nannini, who was the lone dissenter when the commission earlier voted 4-1 to reject the settlement offer.

Hagen said in his order Wednesday that ''settlement of a lawsuit is always the ideal.

''The litigation of this case will be complex and costly to both sides, a prospect which makes settlement all the more desireable,'' he said.

Hagen has warned both sides before that a court battle would be expensive, with many expert witnesses on fish biology, engineering and river ecology.

''Neither side should be confident of the outcome of this case if you do not settle it,'' he told the lawyers earlier this month. He first directed the parties into mediation in October 1999.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Blaine Welsh said Wednesday that Hagen has issued a complicated schedule that calls for certain pretrial steps to be taken in preparation of the possibility of a trial.

The judge asked both parties to report to the court on Dec. 15 whether mediation had resumed.

''It appears if the parties agree to return to mediation, the matter will be continued through Jan. 22,'' Welsh said.

''We're always hopeful that this case can be settled. We think it can be settled,'' he said Wednesday from Las Vegas.

The judge originally had ordered the county to formally decide by Wednesday - 13 months after he ordered mediation - whether to accept a proposed settlement.

That proposal calls on the Forest Service try to find a way to reconstruct the road that washed out in a 1995 flood without violating federal laws protecting the threatened bull trout.

It also would give the county right-of-way access to the road but makes clear the road remains in the ownership of the federal government under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service - something the county opposes.

The county refuses to recognize federal jurisdiction of the road, arguing it was in county control long before the Humboldt National Forest was established in 1906.

The Forest Service initially planned to rebuild the washed-out road but abandoned the idea when the bull trout was declared a threatened species. Officials feared work on the road along the Jarbidge River would harm the fish in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Instead, agency officials two years ago piled dirt and boulders on the road to block vehicles from using the road. The dispute became a rallying point for citizens upset with federal control of public lands and sympathizers from around the nation sent shovels to the group to show support.

State Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, said Wednesday he remained confident the county eventually would prevail.

''There's no question in my mind that it's going to get resolved and we're going to get our road back,'' Carpenter said.


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