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For Immediate Release, August 12, 2008


Lisa Belenky, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 385-5694
Paul McFarland, Friends of the Inyo, (760) 709-1093
Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9622

Judge Dismisses Inyo County Lawsuit to Open Roads in
Remote Death Valley Wilderness
County Waited Too Long to Press Its Claims

FRESNO, Calif.— A federal judge yesterday largely threw out a lawsuit by Inyo County, Calif., to open highways through remote roadless areas of Death Valley National Park.

Inyo County officials had hoped to take control of three routes — little-used paths and canyon bottoms — using a repealed, 19th-century right-of-way law known as R.S. 2477. The judge ruled that the county waited too long to assert its claims to the three roads within the national park because they were included in wilderness study areas by the federal Bureau of Land Management in 1979. The court agreed with arguments by conservation groups and the National Park Service that the county’s claims were barred because it had failed to file suit within the 12-year statute of limitations. The court thus dismissed the county’s claims to all of one route and most of the other two routes.

The ruling will protect desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, and remote archeological and cultural sites within Death Valley National Park, the largest national park in the lower 48 states.

Six conservation groups — Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, California Wilderness Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Inyo, all represented by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm — intervened to support the National Park Service and to ensure that these public lands in Death Valley are protected from off-road vehicle damage.

“This is a great day for Death Valley,” said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups. “When Congress made Death Valley a national park in 1994, it set aside these areas for all Americans to enjoy as quiet, natural, and free from damaging dirt bikes, ATVs, and other off-road vehicles. The court’s ruling will help ensure that Congress’s promise to the American people will be kept.”

“This decision protects the unique biological resources in Death Valley National Park from off-road vehicle abuse,” said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The court rightly found that the county sat back and waited too long before raising these issues. The county was well aware that the federal government intended to protect the resources of these areas in 1979, when the wilderness study areas were designated.”

“I'll bet the horned lizards and chuckwallas are dancing in the desert washes right now,” said Paul McFarland, executive director of Friends of the Inyo, a Bishop-based public lands conservation organization. “Hopefully, this sound decision will let us move beyond bogus road claims to focus on working together to better sustain one of our most valuable assets here in eastern California — our wild desert.”

U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii said the county was on notice in 1979 that the federal government intended to restrict activities in these areas and would not allow the claimed routes to be paved or upgraded in a way that would impair wilderness values. The county sought rights-of-way in hopes of tearing down Park Service barriers and initially asked for the right to build two-lane highways in roadless desert canyons and valleys. Those actions would permanently disrupt the desert stillness and threaten imperiled desert tortoise, as well as one of the park’s most important petroglyph sites.

Areas that will be preserved

Greenwater Canyon, on the east side of the National Park, is rugged, narrow, and deep, carving a twisting course through volcanic rock. Forty-two prehistoric sites containing more than 300 important petroglyphs are found in the Canyon, which also provides habitat for desert bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.

Before the canyon was included in the park in 1994, land managers recognized its importance by naming it an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” to protect “prehistoric occupation sites still important to Native Americans.” One of Inyo County’s claimed “highways” would have cut through the canyon for about 10 miles.

The court’s decision threw out the county’s claim to all of the routes inside the canyon.

Greenwater Valley, to the south of Greenwater Canyon, is covered with lush, dense vegetation, including creosote, sagebrush, bunch grasses, seasonal wildflowers, and cactus. The area includes important habitat for the Black Mountain bighorn sheep herd and desert tortoise.

When Inyo County illegally bulldozed a three-mile route across an abandoned jeep track in 2004, the Park Service revegetated both ends of the route to restore the area’s natural values.

The court’s decision threw out Inyo County’s claim to all of the route.

Last Chance Canyon, at the northern end of Death Valley, is a remote and scenic area that is home to cougar, deer, coyote, and badger. Inyo County claims a 10-mile “highway” runs up the canyon, which narrows into a boulder-choked, tree-strewn gulch. At the head of this gully, the county claims their “highway” ascends a nearly vertical 50- to 200-foot ridge of unstable rock. Cutting a two-lane highway across this rugged terrain would permanently and significantly scar the landscape. The court’s decision threw out Inyo County’s claim to all but the northern half-mile of the route.

All three of these areas were inventoried and found to be “roadless” in 1979, and were designated as wilderness when Death Valley National Park was created in 1994.

Inyo County is one of many governmental agencies and private organizations that are laying claim to federal lands under a repealed Civil War-era law known as R.S. 2477.

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