What stood between them and independence, they said, was a large boulder blocking a government road, and so they heaved and grunted and then cheered and proclaimed that this was the best possible way to celebrate the Fourth of July.
The rebellious Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, backed by hundreds of supporters from as far away as the East Coast, kept their promise Tuesday and removed the remnants of an earthen berm that blocked access to a rocky road that leads deep into Humboldt National Forest in northeastern Nevada.
They arrived in vintage Jeeps and new Mercedes Benzes and rental sedans, driving across 30 miles of treacherous, single-lane gravel road to get here. Hundreds were shuttled in school buses from 30 miles away, in Idaho. They displayed signs proclaiming “I love my country but fear my government,” “Shovels for Solidarity” and “The Lord giveth, and the government taketh away.” They pledged allegiance to the flag and sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” and listened to a song about the importance and symbolism of roads.
And then they removed the final obstacle, a four-ton boulder that they called Liberty Rock.
When they were finished, they not only had defiantly reopened the road, which the U.S. Forest Service closed in 1998, but had symbolically lashed out at federal bureaucrats. The government, they say, is overstepping its authority by shutting down access to public lands.
“The Forest Service will probably come in and undo what we’ve just done,” Drew Bedwell, 60, who came here from Grass Valley, Calif., near Sacramento, said with a shrug. “But what’s important here is, conservative people are coming together to fight for something.
“The government is closing off the best parts of our country to the people who most deserve easier access to it,” Bedwell continued. “The forests aren’t just for hearty Sierra Club members.”
The three-hour rally attracted about 750 people by most estimates, with no confrontations, which law enforcement officials had feared, between environmentalists and the anti-government protesters.
Among the no-shows Tuesday was Matt Holford, the Nevada state director of Trout Unlimited, which has championed fish habitat and has opposed efforts to reopen the forest road for fear that loosened earth would harm the Jarbidge River, which runs alongside it and is a habitat for bull trout. In blocking local efforts to repair the road, the Forest Service has said repairs would harm the local population of the fish, which is listed as threatened.
Holford said he received a cool reception when he was in Jarbidge on Monday, so decided to retreat in the face of a growing number of rally participants. “A group of people with shovels hardly have an engineering plan to protect the river,” he complained Tuesday. “With the next rain, all that material is going to be back in the river.”
Also staying clear of Jarbidge on Tuesday were Forest Service rangers, apparently heeding the warnings of Elko County Sheriff Neil Harris. He said he had asked the U.S. attorney’s office--which had threatened to arrest protesters--to show restraint and not set off any fireworks by showing up.
“Waco, Ruby Ridge--they were failures on the part of government,” Harris said Tuesday as he viewed the festive crowd. “I don’t think the federal government wanted another failure on its hands. There wouldn’t have been a loss of life, but a further degrading of acceptance of federal law enforcement.”
In Twin Falls, Idaho, Forest Service spokeswoman Rose Davis said that the activities of the Shovel Brigade are “under investigation” and that environmental specialists “will take a look at what kind of damage was done” before federal authorities would decide what to do next. If laws were violated, protest leaders could be vulnerable to prosecution.
Among those who traveled far to participate was Scott Traudt, a commercial fisherman from Warwick, R.I., who is angry about government quotas on the squid that he fishes for off the East Coast.
“My fight is the same as ranchers’, miners’, loggers’ and farmers'--people who want to use our natural resources. We’re all fingers on the same hand. And we’re all willing to put ourselves in harm’s way by defying the government,” Traudt said. “This is about a federal bureaucracy that is out of control. Elko County is the new Boston. We’re sticking our necks out, and I’m in good company.”
Eric Peterka, 36, said he drove four days from Georgia, where he is a computer network engineer, to make a point to Washington politicians. “If I let the federal government take this road, they’ll take my road next. I’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I wrote my congressman in Washington, to let him know I’m here.”
Scores of shovel-wielding workers also cleared a 100-yard portion of the road. They stacked hay bales on the slope below the road to prevent rocks and dirt from washing into the nearby river.
Much of the work to clear the roadblock itself had been accomplished Monday by protesters eager to open the road. They left the removal of the boulder for Tuesday, so people who arrived on July 4 could watch or help.
Using three heavy ropes attached to chains that encircled the boulder, more than 200 men pulled in unison, in short two-foot bursts, to drag the boulder about 35 feet to the side of the road.
After it was moved, others finished flattening the roadblock and Jarbidge’s local matriarch, 90-year-old Helen Wilson, took the first ride down the road, in a pickup truck.
Recalling her past treks into the wilderness, she said that opening the road was politically important, and that the bull trout should not stand in the way of public access to the forest.
To heck with the fish, she said. “They’re slimy and soft and they don’t eat well,” she said. “This is all politics.”