A NEW volley in the old War of the West was fired last month as hundreds of shovel-toting protesters paraded through the town of Elko, Nev., to demand the rebuilding of a washed-out road in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
At immediate issue is the fate of a 1,700-foot stretch of narrow dirt canyon road that allows vehicle access to a wilderness trailhead and to good fishing sites on the Jarbridge River.
But the 10,000 shovels came from across the nation, including Maryland, as a philosophical protest against the growing power of the federal government and a confiscatory federal policy toward public lands.
The symbolism may be wasted on the road rebuilding dispute. A federal judge has already ordered arbitration of the matter between the U.S. Forest Service and Nevada officials. The road was there long before the national forest and used regularly. But the Shovel Brigade uproar should not sway the federal government from its initiative to preserve 40 million acres of national forests and public lands as roadless, near-wilderness areas.
This may be the last chance to protect this essential national legacy before more public lands are cut apart by logging and RV roads, destroying landscape and wildlife. Preserving roadless areas -- open, nevertheless, for recreation -- is a critical bulwark against the relentless sprawl of development across the United States.
The White House declared a moratorium in 1998 on building logging roads in national forests. Last fall, President Clinton proposed that 40 million of those acres not be developed.
The process led to an unprecedented 190 public meetings and more than 200,000 written comments. The issue is volatile, not just for its economic impact on the timber industry. Control and use of western lands is the focus; 90 percent of Nevada is owned by the federal government.
Yet strong federal control is the only way to assure that the national heritage of untrammeled forestlands is protected.