Tempers flare on Elko commission meeting over Jarbidge Road

ELKO - Tempers flared when Elko County commissioners met Wednesday to discuss the county's next move in its dispute with the federal government over a remote dirt road in a national forest.

Sheriff Neil Harris had to intervene in a shoving match between Commissioners Mike Nannini and Tony Lesperance.

The scuffle began after Chairwoman Roberta Skelton acknowledged Lesperance's request to speak and Nannini interrupted. After a brief exchange of words, both came out of their chairs and approached each other.

Harris and a member of the audience got between the two angry commissioners and Skelton gaveled the meeting back to order.

Commissioners called Wednesday's special meeting after the U.S. Justice Department filed notice of intent to proceed with lawsuits against the county and the original organizers of the volunteer movement to reopen South Canyon Road near Jarbidge. The litigation was suspended in November pending the outcome of court ordered mediation.

Elko County has not signed the shaky agreement that would give the county a right-of-way but not ownership of the disputed road that was washed out by a flood in 1995.

The settlement would also absolve the county from millions of dollars in potential fines and allow the road to be rebuilt, but only if environmental studies conclude it can be replaced without harming bull trout, a threatened species that lives in the adjacent Jarbidge River.

Last week, the Justice Department asked U.S. District Court Judge David Hagen in Reno to lift a stay of the lawsuit and allow the government to proceed with its case against Elko County and lawyer Grant Gerber, state Assemblyman John Carpenter and county Republican Party leader O.Q. ''Chris'' Johnson.

The three orchestrated a plan last October to reopen the road but were stopped when Hagen issued a retraining order.

A different group called the Shovel Brigade took up the cause and reopened a section of the road over the Fourth of July holiday. Gerber, Carpenter and Johnson were also involved in that effort.

On Wednesday, commissioners voted to ask that the mediation process be continued. Elko County District Attorney Gary Woodbury will represent the county and file the request with the court.

Just what commissioners hope to accomplish through mediation was a topic for debate at Wednesday's meeting. Nannini, a member of the mediation team, said federal officials had explained they could not negotiate requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act regarding the endangered bull trout.

He said the government is also reluctant to compromise on ownership of the road and suggested the county ask that the word ''nonrevokable'' be added to the provision for a county right-of-way.

Lesperance disagreed, saying ownership of the road should be the only issue discussed in mediation. He said if the federal government won't agree the county owns the road, then the matter should be decided in court.

''If we win the lawsuit, we don't have to put the road back,'' Lesperance said. ''The road would have a way of getting back on its own.''


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