Trout Unlimited Testimony for Elko Congressional Hearing
11/12/1999 -- --
Nevada Chairman, Trout Unlimited
Testimony prepared for
November 13, 1999
Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health
United States House of Representatives
Nevada Chairman, Trout Unlimited
P.O. Box 5882
Elko, NV 89802-5882
Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify before this committee on this important matter. Trout Unlimited is a national organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of trout and salmon and their habitats. In Nevada alone, over 650 Trout Unlimited members volunteer their time and resources to protect and enhance the state's streams, rivers and watersheds. Nationally, we have over 100,000 members and 500 chapters with a long track record of working with local communities, states and federal agencies to seek sound solutions to environmental challenges.
First, allow me to briefly describe our membership's connection to this hearing today. The Jarbidge River is of particular concern to Trout Unlimited members in Elko County and the rest of Nevada. The river is home to the southernmost population of bull trout in North America, and TU has worked hard on the ground to improve conditions for the fish. Two years ago, the Northeastern Nevada TU Chapter obtained a $10,000 Trout Unlimited Embrace A Stream grant to help build a bridge that replaced an ill-placed culvert on Jack Creek, a tributary of the Jarbidge. The old culvert had been a barrier to fish passage, and the project has opened up new spawning habitat for bull trout. According to a 1999 survey by the NV Division of Wildlife bull trout have since begun to repopulate Jack Creek. TU has also sponsored a spring fencing project to protect Jack Creek, and has devoted hundreds of volunteer hours to improving the habitat in and management of the Jarbidge watershed. As you can see, TU members have demonstrated a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources to protect and improve the river for everyone's enjoyment.
On a personal level, I am a long-time resident of Nevada and this area and have been going to the Jarbidge to fish and hunt since I was a teenager, some of my first fishing experiences were on the East and West forks of the Jarbidge river and its tributaries.
Trout Unlimited has long opposed rebuilding the 1.5 miles of road from Pine Creek campground to the Snowslide Gulch trail head. We have taken this position for two reasons. First, every scientist who has looked at the issue has concluded that the road is bad for the bull trout and redband trout that live in the river. Second, the road has washed out repeatedly over the years, and the costs of repairing and maintaining the road probably outweigh any of its economic benefits.
The Elko County Commission, various elected officials and residents have taken a vigorous stand in favor of rebuilding the road. Despite our differences in opinion, Trout Unlimited has consistently respected this point of view and welcomed an open discussion of the issues. TU has consistently played by the rules and effectively voiced our opposition by using the well-established appeal process to challenge the Forest Service's initial decision to rebuild the road. As a result of our appeal, a draft assessment concluded that the road should be replaced by a hiking trail covering the last 1.5 miles to the Jarbidge Wilderness portal.
Unfortunately, the county commissioners and their supporters chose not to pursue the administrative or legal actions - or indeed negotiations - to resolve this issue. Instead, they sent road crews up the South Canyon to rebuild the road. They did this despite being warned that working on the road and in the river would violate state and federal law. Their road crews channelized a 900-foot stretch of the Jarbidge River, damaging aquatic habitat and destabilizing the site.
The refusal of proponents of the road to participate in the administrative and legal processes available to them, but rather to take or threaten actions outside the established legal framework, has imposed significant costs on the County. The County's work last summer, which achieved nothing once it was abandoned in the face of a cease and desist order from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP), almost certainly cost County taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. The work needed to repair the damage done by the County cost hundreds of thousands of dollars ($400,000), and is now the subject of potential litigation between the County and the federal government.
Despite the wide array of arguments offered by proponents of rebuilding the road, they have not once validated their arguments by proving them in court. The fact of the matter is that at the heart of these arguments has always been the claim that the road belongs to the County and not the U.S. Forest Service. TU has repeatedly reminded road-rebuilding proponents that there is a simple and well-accepted method for asserting that claim: the County could simply file a lawsuit arguing that the road belongs to it. If the County could prove its claim was correct, it would win the lawsuit, and its rights to the road would be established. Doing so would short-circuit all of the current controversy and resolve the issues at far less cost than the path the Commissioners have apparently chosen.
Perhaps the most troubling result of the actions of the road's proponents is that any dialogue about alternatives is being drowned out by the storm. Options are available to the people of Jarbidge that might bring far greater benefits than the last 1.5 miles of the South Canyon Road. One option might be to improve road access to the town of Jarbidge itself. The current roads make winter access difficult, and require constant maintenance that places road material in the river. Improved roads to Jarbidge might provide economic benefits while reducing the costs associated with road maintenance. In addition, new campsites might be built to replace those impossible to access by vehicle now.
There are several other side issues that we should address. One of the claims that has been made by the proponents of the road is that the bull trout is not really in trouble. They cite the recent work of the Nevada Division of Wildlife in this regard. Fisheries biologists on Trout Unlimited's national staff have reviewed the work of NDOW biologist Gary Lee Johnson. Based on their review of Mr. Johnson's analysis and other relevant information pertaining to Jarbidge bull trout populations, our biologists disagee with the primary conclusions of the NDOW study. Our biologists assert, as I believe, that the Jarbidge bull trout population does warrant listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. While you may reject this analysis, we would point out that there has been no other peer review of Mr. Johnson's work. We suggest that it be subjected to scientific peer review.
Another claim of the road proponents is that the Forest Service stream rehabilitation work harmed the stream. To the contrary, stream rehabilitation experts from TU - and I would point out that we do a lot of work on rehabilitating streams around the country - have visited the area and believe the Forest Service did an excellent job of correcting the damage done by the county road crews.
Finally, our country is, and always has been, based soundly on the rule of law. In order to testify before your committee today, we all had to comply with a process that required the advanced submission of 100 copies of our testimony and disclosure of any federal grants among other things. I am pleased to see the county and some of the 'Jarbidge rebellion' leaders have decided to comply with these simple steps and might suggest that if they put the same simple effort into the court process we might not have to be here today.
In conclusion, the insistence of some of Elko County's elected officials to ignore the rule of law with respect to the South Canyon road has accomplished nothing but the wasting of time, effort, and taxpayer dollars. Fortunately, for the river, its fish, and taxpayers, state cease and desist and a federal temporary restraining order have stopped further destruction of an already vulnerable riverbed. Unfortunately, the "rebellion" represents one in a series of inflammatory actions by Elko County politicians preventing any meaningful discussion of a very difficult issue. Lost in all of the posturing is the opportunity to pursue alternatives that could bring much greater benefits to Jarbidge than 1.5 miles of dead-end road and recognition of the value of a healthy bull trout fishery.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.