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For Immediate Release, June 6, 2012

Contact:   Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303 ) 996-9622
Lisa Belenky, Center for Biological Diversity, (415)385-5694

Court Ruling Protects Death Valley Wilderness From Road Claim

FRESNO, Calif.— A federal judge today threw out a suit by Inyo County, Calif., to open a highway through a remote roadless area of Death Valley National Park.

U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii ruled that Inyo County failed to prove that a little-travelled desert wash in the Last Chance Mountains at the north end of the park was a public county highway under a repealed, Civil War–era right-of-way law known as “R.S. 2477.” Congress protected the Last Chance Mountains as wilderness and added the area to Death Valley National Park in 1994.

The ruling is a victory for conservation groups and the National Park Service who argued that the county’s evidence didn’t show the half-mile route was a public highway — the route showed no signs of construction, and only one person could remember having traveled the route in a vehicle before 1977.

“This is a great day for Death Valley National Park and the wildlife that call it home,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm representing the conservation groups in the lawsuit. “The court’s ruling preserves the solitude and grandeur of this desert wilderness in the largest national park in the lower 48.”

The Last Chance Mountains are a remote and scenic range that is home to cougars, deer, coyotes and badgers. The mountains are located at the northern end of Death Valley near the California–Nevada border, about 80 miles southeast of Bishop, Calif.

“This decision closes down a major threat to Death Valley National Park and protects the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and many other rare plants and wildlife that call the park home,” said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, who also worked on the case. “It means that counties can’t obstruct efforts to protect national parks and other natural areas by claiming as a highway every wash a jeep may have once driven down.”

Six conservation groups — Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, California Wilderness Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Inyo — represented by Earthjustice, intervened to support the National Park Service in the case.

Inyo County’s claim to the alleged “Last Chance Road” was to one of four “highways” the county sought to open in its original suit, filed in 2006. Judge Ishii previously dismissed the other three claims to “highways” because the county failed to file them in time.

A copy of the decision is available here.

Read more about the background of this case here.

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