A ROAD RUNS THROUGH IT
The feds seem to be using a tiny town surrounded by wilderness
to make a point. But what is the point?
© 1998 by Tim Findley
Illustration ©John Bardwell
For a copy of the current issue
It was truly a fine fish, a firm 24 inches of glorious Lahontan
cutthroat brought up from somewhere midway down in the cold azure
depths of Pyramid Lake.
All the others on the boat--the Paiute game wardens and the
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service honchos and Bruce Babbitt's friends--agreed
it was a nice catch, worthy almost of some of the trophies taken
here years ago before the Paiute depleted their own fishery. They
smiled and took pictures and shook the boss's hand after the Interior
Secretary ceremoniously returned his prize to its native waters.
As usual, though, it was Babbitt himself who insisted on
having the last, and most flamboyant, words on his achievement.
"Nevada has a flashy side. So does the Lahontan. It seems
to say to the brown desert: 'Look here! See my silver sequins,
my pink pinstripes! Try to top that!'" Babbitt gushed in a letter
to the Reno Gazette-Journal, recalling the moment and thanking
all who made it possible. It had helped convince him, he said,
that "the economy is the environment" and that the future of the
West lies in providing more such experiences for hordes of Americans
"hungry for the outdoors."
The letter, and variations of it repeated all over the West
in 1998 by the Interior Secretary, was part of what Jamie Mills
of the Newlands Water Protective Association called Babbitt's
summer-long "Sermon On The Trout."
Bruce Babbitt, so they say in Washington, is back. He sulked
awhile and even thought about quitting after the still-unsettled
scolding he took from Congress late last year over campaign funding
influences. But Babbitt's people say he has put all that behind
him and is once again on the trail of feeding the nation's need
for an environment unsullied by such "mistakes" as dams and irrigation
He wrote of hearing "cash registers ring with angling dollars,"
and of restaurants filled with fishermen, "linked by the magic
of water," all of them apart from such outworn uses as "an aging
concrete plug called Derby [irrigation diversion] Dam" on the
Hungry though they may be, however, it will be some time
yet before Babbitt's Fish & Wildlife Service will allow the flocking
fishermen to actually feed themselves on the officially threatened
Lahontan cutthroat. And while Babbitt roved around the Northwest
last summer swinging sledge hammers at small dams, Fish & Wildlife
(FWS) was doing its own part to make things a little more miserable
for other people who actually do earn a living in the outdoors.
Nowhere was that more apparent than alongside the ankle-deep
stream of the Jarbidge River in northeast Nevada. The Jarbidge
has its moments, especially in spring after a heavy winter when
the runoff fills the narrow aspen canyons near its headwaters
and sends it flushing rocks, limbs, logs and all in a headlong
rush down to the Bruneau and on through rolling prairies of southern
Idaho until it finally links up with the great Snake River on
its way to the Pacific. It's that notable descendency that gives
Nevada's Jarbidge the respectable title of being part of a federally
recognized "navigable" waterway, even if most years it's more
like the sort of "river" Mark Twain used to say you needed to
jump across three or four times before getting thirsty enough
to drink it dry.
What the Jarbidge really is in its Nevada origin is a portrait-pretty
little trout stream worthy of an angler's ode to spiritual tranquility.
There's maybe just one thing wrong with its movie-star good looks--a
road runs right by it.
Not a big, well-traveled road with asphalt lanes and guard
railed curves. Just a winding lane-and-a-half of rocky dirt highway
in its best places, and a little less than that where it cuts
off into South Canyon on its way up to the Wilderness Area. It's
in that stretch of road used for recreation and fire control where
the federal government, with the help of strong environmentalist
pressure, has decided to expand its reach by halting repairs to
the flood damaged road in the name of the newly-endangered bull
Otis Tipton, the chubby-cheeked supervisor of road maintenance
in this part of Elko County, seems like a nice friendly boy a
lot younger than he really is, and he still looks almost personally
hurt by it all, like a kid who didn't mean to step on the puppy.
Tipton went to a lot of trouble making sure the bulldozer he rented
was extra clean. He checked and double checked to make sure there
were no leaks of oil or gas or grease before he drove it across
the river--and only through the water that one time to get around
the Forest Service road block.
But that did it, the stern people from Fish & Wildlife say.
Tipton got the water muddy and probably threatened the bull trout
with extinction, they said. And the bottom line is, he didn't
even apply for a "rolling stock" permit before he went ahead and
The folks from Nevada's Division of Environmental Protection
questioned Tipton pretty hard about that, making him take them
right back to the site and explain himself in front of God, bureaucrats,
and very nearly the entire town of Jarbidge, most of whom turned
out for the September grilling of Tipton in South Canyon.
The townspeople, all 65 of them in the summer population,
may confidently be said to be completely on the side of Tipton
in this dispute, and in some ways just as confused by all the
trouble. Since the road work happened July 22, somebody from the
Sierra Club has put a message on the club's internet site calling
Elko County officials "elected thugs." Somebody else has claimed
that Jarbidge is trying to rekindle the whole "Sagebrush Rebellion,"
and one TV report even suggested that the townsfolk in Jarbidge
might have links to the Montana militia.
John Williams, the Jarbidge Justice of the Peace, blinks
at that one and sticks his thumbs in the bib of his blue striped
"Bull trout," he says with no enigma. "Always did think they
were good eatin'."
It was a few fortunately far-sighted individuals like the
74-year-old Williams who probably saved the uniquely treasured
town of Jarbidge from going to the ghosts after all the mines
finally shut down in the 1930s. From then on, there really wasn't
much reason other than pure love of the place to stay in the tiny
town with its old log cabins and porch-covered wood sidewalks.
You can still find western relics like it elsewhere in places
such as Silverton or Kellogg, or Angels Camp or Virginia City.
But Jarbidge is about the only natural town of its type left that
is still at least 100 miles on a mostly dirt road in either direction
from anyplace serious enough to expect daily mail service. Mail
still only makes it to the post office in Jarbidge three times
a week, less sometimes in the winter. Casual tourists don't know
about the place, and probably couldn't find it unless they seriously
studied a map and had plenty of patience to keep looking beyond
an attention-getting 8,500 foot mountain pass. Fishermen, hunters
and some true lovers of the West the way it was know about Jarbidge.
Up to now, that has worked out just fine for the family-sized
locals lucky enough to live there, cradled in a canyon like a
lost, but living, memory.
"Now, darn it, they're trying to say we're a bunch of hillbillies
or rednecks or something," complains Jack Creechley, who, along
with his wife, Dot, owns the town's main business and general
social center, the Outdoor Inn. Creechley is also currently the
president of the Community Association--which makes him the nearest
thing to local officialdom. Unless you count JP John Williams.
"Only, he's a snowbird," Williams teases about his old friend's
former habit of spending winters back in Las Vegas or Arizona.
"And you, John," Creechley counters, "are a worm fisher."
To which Williams indignantly replies, "Well, I catch 'em,
So it goes most any evening around the bar in the Outdoor
Inn ("Booze, Grub, and Rooms" available). Flies or bait. Flat
water or deep pools. The jokes among friends and the mutually
admiring remarks for all the fun the kids seem to be having on
their off-roaders going up and down the dirt paved main (and only)
street. An assortment of fishermen or hunters mingle easily with
hands in from one of the many large ranches beyond the pass. Ron
Luzader clatters up to park alongside the hitching rail in his
Model A sedan. Creechley has one too, along with a beauty of a
'56 Thunderbird he saves mostly for the Fourth of July parade
when they water the road a little to keep the dust down. But unless
they're making one of their periodic all-day trips to Elko or
Pocatello and back, there's hardly much reason to drive more than
a mile or two at a stretch anyway. Nobody, not even the kids,
seems to have any good reason for thinking about going somewhere
else for more than a visit. Unless, that is, one of the seven
kids currently at the schoolhouse finishes eighth grade and needs
more than home schooling.
It's like Williams said when some wide-eyed tourists saw
him sitting out on his front lawn one day and stopped to ask him
what it was like to live there in all that wilderness. "Wouldn't
know," John said. "I live here in town."
Just after Memorial Day in 1995, the Jarbidge busted loose
with one of those rare, rock throwing floods they call "events."
It rampaged down the canyon, roaring through several prepared
camp and picnic sites and taking out a big chunk of South Canyon
road alongside the fork they call Pine Creek. Some two miles down
from the trailhead leading into the federal Wilderness Area, the
Forest Service dropped two big logs across the road and nailed
on a sign declaring it closed.
Up until then, since at least 1909 when the Elkoro Mining
Company was making this the most active gold region in the state,
it was understood that there was mutual agreement over it being
a county road through federally-administered public land. After
the flood, Elko County sought state funds to help repair the road,
but was given a low priority in relief money needed elsewhere
in the state. Generously, the Forest Service offered to employ
federal emergency funds to pay for the repairs to the road along
with the campsites. Elko County was happy to accept the offer.
But as the Forest Service stalled on their promise through
the rest of that year, and on past the next, and the next, it
began to become apparent that something else was up on the Jarbidge.
In 1994, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, based in Missoula,
Mont., had filed a lawsuit to force listing the bull trout as
threatened or endangered all the way from Puget Sound to the extreme
of its range and its only known refuge on the rim of Nevada's
Great Basin--the Jarbidge. The real object of the environmentalists
was to use the bull trout in the same way the spotted owl had
been used to successfully halt logging in the Pacific Northwest.
By March 1998, Nevada at least had agreed to limit the bull
as a catch and release threatened species on the Jarbidge. But
the demands to save the fish from habitat degradation caused by
logging, dam building, over-fishing, and the introduction of non-native
species wasn't getting anywhere quickly with the feds until Otis
Tipton at last fired up that spanking clean "Cat" last July.
It was really only a desperate and emergency move that caused
him to do it, Elko County officials testified later. After stalling
for three years, the Forest Service let it be known that they
had no intention of repairing the road, or the campsites either.
Where they had dropped their log road block amounted to at least
a three-mile extension of the hikers-only Wilderness Area. "It
was either fix it ourselves, or lose the road," said an attorney
for the county.
Beyond just the obvious need of the road for fire, and even
flood protection, the high water spring of '95 had overwhelmed
campsites and wiped out relief stations. Creechley wasn't the
first to notice streamers of toilet paper hanging from some trees
as the Forest Service clenched, summer after summer. Like it or
not, the wilderness was getting closer to the little town.
That Tipton neglected to acquire the necessary "rolling stock"
permit for the work from state environmental officials was only
something overlooked in the emergency to get it done before another
winter. But just one day after he started his work, the FWS demanded
the state issue a cease and desist order against Elko County and
consider thousands of dollars in penalties for what they said
was serious sedimentation of the river caused by Tipton's rented
bulldozer. To his amazement, they even accused Tipton of changing
the natural stream channel by attempting to repair the washout.
It was so serious, they were moved to declare an emergency
and immediately list the bull trout as endangered in the Jarbidge.
It's a fine of $1,000 to be caught bothering one, and possible
criminal penalties of jail time and up to $100,000 for continuing
to mess with the bull.
As it happened, Jack Creechley, along with John Williams
and some other folks from town, had gone up to watch Tipton work
that day and had even moved some trout--none of them bulls--out
of the old flood-made pools and back into the main stream. It
was about as radical an act as they've ever done, unless you count
hauling that huge oak back bar all the way up from the Golden
Nugget in Las Vegas to the Outdoor Inn a decade or so ago.
Jack Klippenstein, a retired heavy equipment operator from
Reno who has been fishing along the Jarbidge since 1971, testified
that he missed all the morning action with the bulldozer by taking
the 10 minute drive into town. When he got back to his campsite
below the work later that afternoon, he said, the water was clear
as ever and he caught his five-fish limit for supper--none of
them bull trout. "It didn't hurt or help the river," Klippenstein
said in a puzzled way at all the trouble. "It helped the road,
but it didn't hurt the river or the fish."
Tipton wasn't able to get much done anyway before he was
ordered to stop, but what he did in a couple of hundred yards
served to halt further erosion along the washout. It is true,
however, that no one has actually seen a bull trout there since.
Not, maybe, that there really aren't any bull trout there.
Williams, who sometimes exaggerates, especially about fishing,
insists he's caught one now and then on worms over the last half-century.
But fly-fishing Creechley never has in nearly 30 years, and neither
has anybody else he knows--except maybe John Williams.
The bull is actually a char that eats other little trout.
Its predatory nature, in fact, once helped establish a bounty
on catching them. But the furious opponents of the road work,
led most lately by Trout Unlimited and Friends of the Swan, insist
the pink-spotted bull is likely to be the biggest and best fish
caught in streams like the Jarbidge. And, of course, the one most
imperiled by any attempts to do so, intentional or not.
That's just one of the reasons Creechley can find to worry
about a next season already hampered by lower limits and the continued
lack of access to at least four campsites along the closed road.
What worries him and others in Jarbidge most, however, is the
way the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited and others are trying
to depict anybody who wants the road reopened as some kind of
Trout Unlimited State Chairman and Elko resident Matt Holford
accused county officials of having a "public lands agenda" and
the Jarbidge locals of "hiding behind" a phony cause of fire control.
"Opening the road is more of a political statement," Holford charged.
Even Holford saw the endangered listing as going beyond the
less-restrictive "threatened" status his group wanted for the
bull, but he blamed the backers of the road repair. "They asked
for it, and now we have to live with it," he taunted.
John Bernt, a geologist who has lived in Jarbidge off and
on for 20 years, scowls about it and broods over when and how
it's all likely to work out. "The federal government and the environmentalists
just ruin it for everybody," he said. "It's bound to end up in
a bad way."
Elko County Commissioner Tony Lesperance, who has long been
known not to mind much being called a rebel when it comes to dealings
with the federal government, said, "They can list the damn moon
if they want to, we're going ahead with opening up the road because
the county has its police powers."
That was about the same opinion come to by the Nevada Environmental
Commission, whose chairman and state engineer, Mike Turnipseed,
said he was "fed up" with all the wasted time. "This is Nevada,"
he said. "We're Nevadans and this is our resource."
After hearing all the evidence, and interviewing Tipton again
both at the site and in Elko, Turnipseed's commission came to
the conclusion that Tipton should have gotten a "rolling stock"
permit, but that he meant no harm by forgetting it, and that he
actually did more good than harm to the river by returning it
to its natural channel. They directed the county to apply for
a state permit immediately and maybe pay a token fine before getting
on with the rest of the work.
The state environmental commissioners are aware, however,
that their decision will simply, as Turnipseed put it, "get us
off the hook." The real battle is yet to come, because now the
Forest Service claims it, not Elko County, owns the road, and
they're backed up by Trout Unlimited and others who have written
letters proclaiming the road can't be fixed without violating
the law that protects the endangered bull.
That's the sort of reality come to Jarbidge that leaves Bernt
and others shaking their heads with unaccustomed scowls.
Bruce Babbitt, wandering around the West with a sledge hammer
last summer, at one point offered to personally mediate the dispute.
By then, officials in Elko County and people in Jarbidge in particular
knew a lot better than to bite on that bait. Babbitt was busy
anyway, making a keynote address on Aug. 12 to Trout Unlimited's
national convention. He drew laughter there with a wink and a
sneering remark about not wanting to "characterize Elko" despite
all the good work he said was being done there by his BLM bureaucrats.
That Reno crowd gave Babbitt its warmest applause when the
secretary heaped praise on the personal pal who helped him catch
his Lahontan cutthroat in May. It was Trout Unlimited's own Matt
Holford. The same guy determined to stop the road repairs in South
Late in August, in a stuffy little room at the opposite end
of the Great Basin, FWS officials conceded to a crowded gathering
of Lahontan Valley farmers what has seemed obvious to them for
years--that the cui-ui sucker fish in Pyramid Lake is not nearly
so endangered as the feds originally thought when they made it
the first finny creature on the list in 1966.
In fact, the Fish & Wildlife representatives admitted, their
initial "modeling" of the cui-ui's problems and the way to solve
them were all wrong. The fish lives longer than they thought--a
spawning female was found to be 51 years old. The initial count
of them was not accurate--somebody forgot that sucker fish travel
along the bottom while they were counting fish nearer the surface.
And it turns out that thousands of the fish were being killed
by the methods of chutes and ladders imposed by the government
to save them.
Did that mean the cui-ui, chief cause all the trouble for
some 30 years between Pyramid Lake Paiutes and the farmers, was
no longer "endangered"? Far to the contrary. Numbers of the fish,
past or present, have little to do with it, FWS people said. The
cui-ui was not listed as endangered because of any scientific
evidence, they admitted. It was "nominated" for its cultural importance
to the Paiute. And no matter what new "modeling" might show, the
sucker will remain on the endangered species list for at least
another five years until it can be determined for certain that
it is likely to survive into the 22nd century. The farmers sitting
in the sweaty little room in their own county office complex listened
with dulled eyes. A couple of them even thanked the federal bureaucrats
for being so forthcoming with new information. In the meantime,
the federally funded program to buy out irrigation rights from
"willing sellers" in their region continues under legal pressure
to provide more water from the Truckee to Pyramid Lake's "endangered"
cui-ui, and, incidentally, to the upstream Reno metropolis. Last
year, after another disastrous mishap in the federal recovery
program inadvertently killed a number of the fish, U.S. authorities
put out a notice among the Pyramid Lake Paiute offering a "take"
of cui-ui for consumption by legitimate tribal members. The response
Like the cui-ui, the bull trout was "nominated" in the Jarbidge
as an emergency measure to save its existence, whether or not
local folks might agree that it really needed saving or was even
there at all.
Bruce Babbitt, in his inspired letter to the Reno Gazette-Journal
last summer, expressed the feelings of many in such disputes.
"I reeled in a bit of the New West," he expounded. "What
I saw, in the technicolor swirl of that Lahontan cutthroat, was
a deepening iridescence, the strengthening pulse of a Great Basin
ecosystem on the mend."
Such purple prose from the secretary back from his own near
extinction. Not so easily spoken, however, in Jarbidge, where
county authorities concede it is unlikely that the South Pass
road can be fixed again this year before the snow flies.
* * *
Investigative reporter Tim Findley lives in Fallon, Nev.
CUTTING HIPOCRISY BOTH WAYS
© 1998 by Tim Findley.
Illustration ©1998 by John Bardwell
For a copy of the current issue
John Balliette, the natural resources manager in neighboring Eureka
County, Nev., gladly accepts his reputation as a troublemaker
among former friends and collegues in what he calls the "Forest
Balliette took the whole summer fracas over bull and other
fish so seriously that he has proposed a political solution worthy
of any get tough politician anywhere. Crack down on the wrong-doers,
Balliette suggests. Zero tolerance, starting with people who openly
flaunt the letter of the law in the Endangered Species Act. Arrest
Bruce Babbitt for harassing that cutthroat trout without a permit.
The way Balliette reads the Endangered Species Act (Section
9), sport fishing, even limited to catch and release, amounts
to a violation of the act limiting such takings to scientific
purposes or other special reasons requiring a specific permit.
Just showing off for your friends shouldn't count.
Oh, ridiculous, you say. But Balliette says it's no more
ridiculous than the special permit required of bug hunters last
year who wanted to count a mysteriously threatened insect, and
certainly no more ridiculous than the law which imposes potential
$100,000 fines for merely chasing the over-populated wild horses
in the state.
Hypocrisy, in Balliette's view, ought to cut both ways. If
Bruce Babbitt wants to get all sequined glittery over claiming
that an irrigation dam is in the way of spawning Lahontan cutthroat
(and there's no evidence it is) then any fishing at all in the
Truckee River ought to be halted for fear of harassing the threatened
species. And while we're at it, Balliette says, the little horned
lark that feeds alongside highway shoulders in the fall is also
protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act but frequently ends
up as a radiator ornament. It might be time to stop driving in
Nevada during the time when the little bird would be in harm's
Such is the suffering state of common sense when it gets
lost altogether in an ugly battle to repair an obscure road.
* * *
Investigative reporter Tim Findley lives in Fallon, Nev.