• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The New Wild West

Air Date: Week of

Alan Weisman reports on a local revolt against federal authority in Nevada, where a clash over endangered species protection has led to the abrupt resignation of a rising star in the National Forest Service. Residents of the remote area say they are defying the government in an effort to protect their property rights. But former National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora says the situation has escalated to a dangerous level, and that she resigned to reduce the likelihood of violence.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It was just an ordinary flood that knocked out an ordinary road in an ordinary stretch of backcountry in Nevada. But the tale of what happened after the Jarbidge River flood of 1995 has taken on the flavor of an epic western, with fierce battles over the land and who owns it, and fierce "this town ain't big enough for the both of us" rhetoric. And the stakes are high. The question is whether or not to rebuild a road in a sensitive ecosystem. For local residents it's a last-stand crusade to protect the basic values which define their communities. For the federal government, it's a test of a major shift toward protecting natural resources on public lands in the West. And the battle has already claimed one significant casualty: the career of a rising star in the U.S. Forest Service, whom many thought could become the first woman to head the agency. From northern Nevada, Alan Weisman has our report.

WEISMAN: Northern Nevada's Jarbidge wilderness is so remote that much of the year you can't get here from anywhere else in the state. Instead you have to drive into Idaho, cross a snow-swept grassland so big that the sky itself can't seem to put a lid on it, and then dip south toward a black slash that suddenly splits the horizon.

(Flowing water)

WEISMAN: This is the Jarbidge River Gorge, formed back in glacial times. Its steep, rooster-comb ridges and glowing granite spires tower over a cold, clear river that snakes through stands of black cottonwoods, mountain mahogany and tall, conical fir trees. Jarbidge Canyon is home to martens, wolverines, several kinds of trout, about 30 year-round human residents, mostly retired, and, lately, to controversy.

(An engine tries to start)

JOYAL: You didn't prime it, did you?

SMITH: I primed it once and it started right up.

(More engine attempts)

WEISMAN: The old gold mining settlement of Jarbidge is a tiny jumble of wooden cabins and tin buildings. Phil Joyal and Butch Smith, dressed in fleece-lined denim rough-outs and snowmobile pants, mount their Skidoos and ride to the end of the line. Now in his late 70s, Phil Joyal remembers driving on South Canyon Road as a boy. It used to lead three miles upriver to the trailhead of the Jarbidge wilderness. Now, it only goes half that far.

(Water flows)

JOYAL: Now this is where the problem started. The river, you can see how it comes around, it got diverted up here about, oh, 900 feet or so. And here's where the road was.

WEISMAN: In 1995, a flood obliterated South Canyon Road, as it had done many times before.

JOYAL: Right. And we said to the Forest Service, we'd like to have it back in. And they did a study and said fine, we will put it back in, we have the money. Wonderful.

WEISMAN: In fact, over the years the U.S. Forest Service had often repaired the road. But not this time.

JOYAL: They said they're going to do it next spring or whenever. And then along comes the bull trout issue and that stopped the whole thing.

WEISMAN: Before the Forest Service made good on its promise, a conservation group called Trout Unlimited protested. The Jarbidge River, they claimed, is the southernmost habitat for the bull trout, a living Ice Age relic considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act. After two years of study, the Forest Service decided not to restore the road after all, but instead to build a hiking and horse trail above the canyon bottom.

JOYAL: So you've got people up at the higher level of government that are not listening to the people. They're not even coming over here to find out what they're talking about. They're accepting what they're getting from one or two people as gospel. And that is one of the things that makes us pretty unhappy.

WEISMAN: The river's fish have coexisted with the road for more than a century, residents argue. The road is needed, they said, for rescue and fire protection. And without it, how can people too old to hike or too poor to rent horses reach favorite campsites they've always used for hunting and fishing and picnics? But the Forest Service held firm. So the Elko, Nevada, county commissioners decided to take matters into their own hands.

JOYAL: So they came in and they put it back in. They diverted the river back over where it belongs, and then fixed the road. Took them two days. They were just getting good and started. Then a federal stop order stopped them.

FLORA: I went to Jarbidge after the county did their little -- their little work. And let me describe briefly what I saw.

WEISMAN: Gloria Flora had just taken over as forest supervisor in July 1998, when Elko County sent two bulldozers into Jarbidge canyon.

FLORA: Nine hundred feet of river channelized in what could be classified as a shallow irrigation ditch. The curves were straightened out of the river. There were no rocks, debris, pools, ripples, nothing. And now, the road, the attempt to rebuild the road, what an embarrassment. The surface of the road was below the bottom of the rechannelized river. It was an abortion. It was horrible.

WEISMAN: So Gloria Flora contracted a team of habitat experts to restore the stream bed, and to bury the road under tons of dirt. That took three months and cost over $400,000, which the Forest Service billed to Elko County. The county refused to pay.

(People sing the national anthem)

WEISMAN: Elko, Nevada, the county seat, 100 miles south of Jarbidge, January 29, 2000. Nearly 4,000 citizens gather at a courthouse rally following the biggest parade in history.

(A crowd cheers)

MAN: Our invocation will be given by Kent Howard.

WEISMAN: Retired rancher Kent Howard stands in front of a 30-foot shovel inscribed with thousands of names.

HOWARD: Father, at this time, guide us in our efforts to turn back the attack of evil socialism against the good things of our nation. We'll do everything we can to protect our private property rights and our national heritage. And Father, we are thankful for all those who have sent their shovels and sentiments to support us in this great cause.

(Metal clanks)

WEISMAN: Last October, hundreds of Elko citizens, led by county commissioners and a state assemblyman, descended on Jarbidge Canyon with shovels and horse teams. They aim to defy the Forest Service and reopen the road yet again. At the last minute, a temporary federal restraining order stopped them. Since then, tensions have soared over who really owns the roads running through national forests: the federal government, who already controls 87 percent of Nevada land, or local counties? The citizens brigade has now vowed to reopen the Jarbidge road on the Fourth of July, no matter what the courts decide. And they've been stockpiling shovels.

HEARST: From this day on, the definition of a shovel will no longer be an instrument used for turning dirt. It will be a symbol for kindness, caring, camaraderie, and hope.

WEISMAN: Jim Hearst was invited here to be the parade's grand marshal. The Montana sawmill owner had read about Elko County's uprising against federal control of public lands. He offered to round up and send the Nevadans a few shovels as a gesture of support. Word spread rapidly, and within two weeks the Elko County courthouse was flooded with shovels: 11,000 in all, from 16 Western states and as far away as Michigan and Florida.

HEARST: So here we are, surrounded by thousands of shovels from thousands of deeply concerned Americans, rural Americans. This grassroots movement has generated a phenomenal amount of national support. It has put our adversaries on notice that we mean business. They haven't seen anything quite like this before.

WEISMAN: Adversaries, he means, like forest supervisor Gloria Flora, who has been referred to in the local press as a Fed Nazi. But last November Gloria Flora shocked the national forest system by resigning. She was fed up, she said, with watching Forest Service employees be refused service in restaurants, kicked out of motels, subpoenaed by the local grand jury, and afraid to wear their uniforms in public. The hostilities they routinely endured were encouraged, she claimed, by elected officials who had made Fed-bashing a spectator sport.

FLORA: What it came down to was, I knew that there needed to be attention drawn to the situation. And I was afraid that that attention would be drawn by a bomb, by one of my employees getting hurt. But the third choice was my resignation, the far better alternative than the other two. I mean, obviously, one doesn't chuck a twenty-two-and-a-half year career just because you're having a bad day.

WEISMAN: Gloria Flora sits in her home in the Warm Springs Valley, 25 miles northeast of Reno. She and her husband will soon be leaving here. Ms. Flora gathers and twists her long dark hair as she reflects on her dramatic professional sacrifice. She sits poised and erect, but her eyes reveal exhaustion and the anguish of her decision. A recent Forest Service inquiry into her allegations was inconclusive. That report is now gleefully cited by her opponents, such as Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons.

GIBBONS: The Forest Service could not produce documented evidence that would justify the complaints of Ms. Flora, who said that she had been intimidated and threatened. There was no evidence to show that any justifiable cause of action from any type of threat, of intimidation or threat of harm to any employee occurred. That clearly raises the issue of why all the hysteria on the behalf of the Forest Service over this issue.

FLORA: I know the report said that they didn't think it was an unsafe situation. Well, how do you evaluate what is not a violent situation or potentially violent situation? You know, people will say well, hey, there were no prosecutable threats, so there's not a potential for violence. But, when you see things like people saying, again, "Remember Waco," "God is on our side," "God loves patriots," "We're patriots fighting for freedom against the occupying government," I think back to the last person that remembered Waco in a very visible manner, and that was Timothy McVeigh. And about 180 people lost their lives. Did any of those people receive a prosecutable threat prior to him doing his deed? No.

WEISMAN: The FBI, the Department of Justice and the county sheriff, she adds, warned her not to travel to Jarbidge because they couldn't guarantee her safety.

FLORA: Just five years ago we had three bombings between the BLM office, the Forest Service office and the private residence of a Forest Service employee. Now, to me, that's a serious issue.

WEISMAN: In early March a memo surfaced, written last year by Elko’s district attorney to county officials. The memo recommended spending taxpayers' money on ads that would read, "This is message is brought to you by the Elko County Commission, who encourages you to let the Forest Service know what you think about this by not cooperating with them. Don't sell goods or services to them until they come to their senses." Although the ads were never run, some county commissioners now grudgingly admit that the D.A.'s letter strengthens Gloria Flora's case. Ms. Flora herself says that vindication isn't the point. The land is.

FLORA: The issue of what has happened in the past does not need to be discussed in depth. But what people should be doing is using that issue as an entree to the real discussion: How are we going to best manage these public lands when we have such a divergence of opinion?

WEISMAN: Over the past several years, the need to protect critical ecosystems has become better understood. Agencies like the Forest Service are now shifting priorities from resource extraction to resource preservation. Traditions such as ranching may one day be the stuff of bygone memories. But many Westerners still detest restrictions on the region's forests and open spaces. They crave places to flex their muscles and still taste a sense of freedom in a shrinking, crowded world. So-called sagebrush rebels and environmentalists are increasingly polarized over policies such as one recently announced by President Clinton, an initiative declaring 50 million more acres of forest land off-limits to new roads. Some predict that incidents like Jarbidge could escalate into civil war.

LANDRETH: The last thing we want to do in these cases is make martyrs out of the protesters.

WEISMAN: Katherine Landreth is a United States attorney in Las Vegas. She has often been criticized for not filing more criminal charges against Nevadans who violate federal laws by running their cattle illegally on Forest Service lands. Or by scorning roadless area designations.

LANDRETH: Our history in the areas of civil protest tells us it's imprudent to turn these kinds of events into a situation where the individual is perceived to be a martyr, a victim of a large and oppressive system.

WEISMAN: The federal government is leery of heavy-handed law enforcement that might ignite another Waco or Ruby Ridge. Instead, says Ms. Landreth, the strategy is to treat such cases as civil violations, and try to exhaust the offenders with expensive litigation. But frustrated federal workers like Gloria Flora argue that letting people think they can escape criminal penalties for flaunting the laws will simply encourage them to do so. If the Justice Department strategy won't change, Gloria Flora believes that something else will have to.

FLORA: Let's look at that from the perspective of the glass being half full rather than half empty. We as citizens of the rural West enjoy some fantastic scenery, resources that most Americans only see on their one-week vacation. And it's in our back yard. And we have 260 million other people who are paying for it to be maintained in a way that we can use it, we can visit it, we can jump on our horse or stride out from our back yard and walk for miles unimpeded. And yet, when I speak with people, it's, "Oh woe is me, oh this is horrible that we have this federal presence here."

WEISMAN: It's understandable, she says, that Westerners protest when a distant government back East makes decisions about their surroundings. But maybe it's simply a matter of getting people to consider the alternative.

FLORA: Do you want federal presence and all this open land to enjoy and enjoy the benefits that come from it in terms of habitat and wildlife, fish? Or, would you rather that it was all privatized, and you could look at it, but it could be a scenic view and a nice habitat today or a strip mine tomorrow, and you wouldn't have any say over what happened. Nor would you have the right to go on that land unless you negotiated with the landowner. I think the choice is pretty clear. I think all of us would opt for having public land.

(Flowing water)

WEISMAN: Although Nevada's Jarbidge Road is not part of the President's recent roadless initiative, for many Westerners it's become its symbol. They're outraged by polls that Gloria Flora cites, which show that a large majority of Americans favor this new Executive Order. Angrily, they complain that since the West's wide open spaces are the country's least populated areas, the majority mainly lives east of the Mississippi. Easterners aren't the ones losing control of their own back yards, so why should they dictate what the West needs? Resource managers like Gloria Flora agree that locals must be heard. But in a world that increasingly recognizes that the environment is an interconnected global issue, more than just local concerns are at stake. Meanwhile, the stakes just keep rising. For Living on Earth, I'm Alan Weisman reporting.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth