Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2019

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Hundreds of protesters lay claim to road with muscle power

JARBIDGE, Nev. - Protesters from around the West and as far away as the East Coast spent Independence Day here taking a stand against the federal government and reopening a dirt road in a national forest.

The scene resembled July 4th picnics around the nation, as hundreds joined a "tug-of-war" line tied to a boulder the protesters dubbed the "Liberty Rock" that blocked access to a stretch of dirt road leading to an outhouse, some campgrounds and a wilderness area.

Chanting "Freedom, Freedom," the Shovel Brigade protesters moved the boulder, inch-by-inch, using three lines of rope attached to a chain around the rock that has blocked access to South Canyon Road.

"You can see what people power does," said state Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, one of the original leaders of the shovel movement. "People power can move these rocks and it can move the world."

Once the boulder was removed, the peaceful and jubilant crowd erupted in cheers as a pickup truck carrying 90-year-old Helen Wilson drove over the 900-foot section of reopened road.

Wilson, Jarbidge's oldest resident, waved to hordes of reporters along the rocky route. When asked about the last time she's been that far up the road, she yelled, "About five years."

That's when South Canyon Road was washed out in a flood in 1995. Federal authorities have blocked efforts to reopen it, fearing repairs to the road would jeopardize habitat of the threatened bull trout. The southernmost population of the fish lives in the Jarbidge River that meanders near the road in this steep canyon.

Earlier, volunteers hiked to the end of the 1.5-mile road to clean out the outhouses near the wilderness trailhead.

The facilities had not been emptied in five years.

"That's known as government waste," Shovel Brigade President Demar Dahl told the festive gathering as the "honey buckets" were carried to a septic truck.

People from around the West and as far away as Maine, Florida, Rhode Island, New York, Vermont, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana and Canada converged in this remote outback to take part in the demonstration.

"Their fight is my fight back there," said Scott Traudt, 34, a commercial fisherman from Warwick, R.I. who said loggers, ranchers and others like himself who make their living from the land are frustrated by increased government regulation.

"We've had enough. We're all getting unified."

A federal judge last week denied a Justice Department request for an injunction to halt the protest. There were no federal authorities present during the two-day protest, though the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said experts will monitor the region after the demonstrators leave to determine if any environmental damage occurred.

If so, members of the Shovel Brigade and those that helped rebuild the road could be prosecuted, the federal authorities have said.

Matt Holford of the conservation group Trout Unlimited said having that many people in the cramped canyon shoveling dirt would be detrimental to the fish.

Though the road was not completely rebuilt and the turnout was far less than the 5,000 some had predicted, organizers claimed victory in their resolve.

Elwood Mose, vice president of the brigade and a Native American, praised participants for taking a stand.

"Look out," he said. "You might all wind up on reservations one day. You might be the new Indians."

The only environmentalists at the gathering was a group called The Great Old Broads for Wilderness.

They did not confront demonstrators, but mingled with them to make their presence known. The group intended to clean up after the demonstrators left.

But Susan Tixier, the group's leader, said, "There's nothing for us to do. They did a hell of a job" in building the road and leaving no garbage.

Tixier said just the road's existence makes her want to cry. The group planned to hold a wake to mourn the environmental loss.

"They're making a mess to make a point about the federal government," she said. "I don't think the Forest Service is always right, but here they did the right thing closing the road."

Though she disagreed with their action, Tixier described the demonstrators as "honest, harding-working folks who want to make a point."

"In America, we can do this," she said.