July 25, 2007

Judge Tosses Out Surprise Canyon Lawsuit

National Parks Traveler
by Kurt Repanshek

A federal judge has tossed out a lawsuit aimed at turning a unique canyon on the western edge of Death Valley National Park into a road for four-wheelers. Judge Lawrence O'Neill ruled that the parties that brought the lawsuit had no standing on the issue.

When most think of Death Valley, they envision starkness, sand dunes, and saltpan. But Surprise Canyon is definitely different, with a tumbling stream, lush vegetation, and wildlife lured by the water.

Now, according to documents in this case, in the 1870s there actually was a road that ran up the canyon to reach the silver mines of Panamint City. Supposedly the six-mile route was in such good condition at the time that stagecoaches could travel it. Well, the silver boom went bust in 1877, Panamint City turned into a ghost town of sorts, and the Surprise Canyon route wasn't maintained. Indeed, it was washed out at times by flash floods.

Now, there were improvements made in 1918, 1924, and 1947-48, according to the court. However, flash floods continued to erase them.

Back in the 1980s, some off-roaders discovered the canyon and figured it was a perfect playground, even if it did require the use of winches and impromptu rock ramps to help negotiate the waterfalls. But in 2001, as the result of litigation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management closed the lower section of the canyon to ORV traffic, and in 2002 the National Park Service closed the upper stretch.

Last year some off-road groups went to court to open the canyon, saying it really was a "highway" that they have a right to under a Civil War-era statute known today simply as R.S. 2477. Under that statute, initially created to further western expansion, some states, counties and off-road groups have claimed that washes, two-tracks, even hiking trails are "highways" that they are entitled to travel.

Well, yesterday U.S. District Judge O'Neill tossed their lawsuit, ruling that they had no standing to bring the lawsuit since they had no title to claim to the route. Not surprisingly, the groups who sided with the government in the case applauded the judge's decision.

“It’s a great day for Surprise Canyon and Death Valley National Park,” says Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, representing six conservation groups involved in the case. “This place is a miracle — a gushing stream running through the desert. We’re pleased the court denied an attempt to turn this marble canyon’s waterfalls into a highway.”

"Today the court took an important step toward protecting Surprise Canyon and the web of life it supports,” said Chris Kassar, wildlife biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The special character of this desert oasis strikes you as soon as you step in — cool water fills your shoes, flycatchers flit from branch to branch, and thick stands of willows and cottonwoods sway in the breeze against a backdrop of steep, multicolored cliff walls."

“We are thrilled,” said Deborah DeMeo, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The dismissal of this suit means that Surprise Canyon Creek in Death Valley National Park, and the habitat and wildlife that it supports, will be preserved for future generations to enjoy."