August 12, 2008

Judge dismisses case seeking roads in Death Valley

The Associated Press

A federal judge in Fresno largely dismissed a lawsuit that sought to open up roads through miles of remote desert canyons and valleys in Death Valley National Park.

In the lawsuit dismissed Monday, Inyo County sought to re-establish access to four roads near the Nevada border that park officials seized when the national park was established in 1994. The county filed its lawsuit against the federal government in 2006.

Six environmental groups filed legal papers in 2007 to join the National Park Service in fighting the lawsuit. The coalition argued that reopening the old mining roads that had been washed away would harm the park's fragile ecosystem, including a number of federally protected animals.

"It's a significant ruling and a big one for our team and for the park," said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney representing the environmental groups.

The conservation groups saw the disputed area as remote canyons that the Bureau of Land Management deemed to be "roadless" years earlier. The county, however, saw the same area as 20 miles of established roadways that could one day be widened.

Randy Keller, assistant county counsel, said the county was trying to re-establish local control over roads in an area where 98 percent of the land is owned by the state and federal government. Keller said the county is disappointed by the ruling and had not decided whether to appeal.

"It's really the prerogative of local government to maintain its roads," he said.