Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Mexican Spotted Owl are putting the brakes on efforts by repair crews in Tombstone, AZ, who are trying to fix the town's main water source that was damaged by fire and flooding from monsoon rains last year.
The Mesquite Citizen Journal first reported on this story June 1. See MCJ article Tombstone a Cautionary Tale for Mesquite The issue may become important to the Mesquite area because of the water resources the Virgin Valley Water District holds in the Nickel Creek area located within the proposed Gold Butte National Conservation Area with Wilderness.
On May 16, the Goldwater Institute, a conservative-based organization, filed an emergency appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Frank Zapata’s decision that denies the small Arizona town from repairing its primary water source apparatus that lies within a federally-declared wilderness area.
The Supreme Court, first Justice Anthony Kennedy and then Justice Clarence Thomas, sided with Zapata's decision and denied the town's request for an emergency injunction against the U.S. Forest Service who will not allow mechanized or motorized equipment into the Wilderness area based on a 1964 federal law banning such equipment.
In a CNN.com article published Saturday, June 9, Ann O'Neill reported that the Mexican Spotted Owl had recently been sighted in the area further dampening Tombstone efforts to repair its water transmission equipment. The owl was thought to be driven out of the area during last year's fires.
O'Neill reports that "As for the owl, nobody could say for certain after the fire whether it would return. But it's the big reason why the Forest Service wouldn't simply hand Tombstone a permit to use heavy construction equipment to fix the pipeline. Tombstone responded by taking the feds to court. Since then, the conflict has escalated, taking on a life of its own.
"Tombstone now asserts that it owns 25 springs in the Huachuca Mountains and shouldn't have to ask anyone for permission to maintain its own water line. The Forest Service says Tombstone holds permits for just five springs, and it argues the city is trying to exploit a natural disaster to expand its water system."
A spokesman for the Goldwater Institute, which is helping the city with the case, said he did not expect the injunction to be granted, but that they are trying to bring attention to the city’s plight according to the Institute's Web site.
Nick Dranias, the institute’s constitutional policy director, said that not letting the city start the repair work will subject it to months of risk for burning in the middle of wildfire season.
“The city of Tombstone’s very existence is at stake, and a decision like this could very well prove to be its death penalty,” Dranias said.
He said the Supreme Court request was also meant to send a message
to the Forest Service that local governments “must be free to take actions under a state of emergency to protect public health and safety.”
Dranias said the city of 1,500 is living on “borrowed time” as it faces wildfire season, and that the government is putting residents at risk for “no legitimate reason.”
“The reality is there’s nothing of anything significance alive up there because of the fire,” he said. “To say to the city, take your chances and see how long you can get along with what you’ve got is fundamentally irresponsible.”
Gov. Jan Brewer declared an emergency in August 2011 in response to the city’s water problems.
While the lawsuit is pending, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, AZ, introduced a bill in Congress on May 16, to let state and local governments access wilderness lands without federal interference during a declared state of emergency. The bill, introduced in response to Tombstone’s situation, is scheduled for a House committee hearing last Friday, June 8, in Washington.
According to O'Neill's CNN.com article, "The federal government controls millions of acres in the West, and some folks believe the feds have reneged on a promise to turn over large swaths to local control once statehood was achieved. It's a battle cry once made by oilmen and ranchers, and now state and local governments are taking up the cause.
"The leaders of the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, which in 2000 used volunteer muscle power to move a boulder and reopen a wilderness road near Elko, Nevada, rallied to Tombstone's side. A nonprofit organization was set up, and Tombstone so far has received $2,000 in donations and about 400 shovels.
"The Jarbidge contingent then traveled to Tombstone, hiked up the mountain and labored on the pipeline."
O'Neill's article examines the tense relationship between the U.S. Forest Service workers assigned to the Tombstone area and the local townspeople.
"Tombstone tells a compelling story, portraying the Forest Service as a rogue agency of obstructionist, tree-hugging bureaucrats. The Forest Service had offered little comment, and when it did say something, it sounded to the people of Tombstone, well, tree-hugging and bureaucratic.
"But the rangers came out in force on Friday [June8], presenting their helpful side. A group of Forest Service firefighters hiked up the mountain and used a two-man crosscut saw to take down a tree and clear a path for the pipeline.
"While everyone agrees the relationship between Tombstone city officials and Forest Service rangers has improved in recent weeks, their differences simmer just below the surface. The agency is working with the city to come up with a plan to keep water flowing to Tombstone, but it isn't standing down.
"The Forest Service granted permits Thursday for the city to bring the all-volunteer shovel brigade into the canyon to shore up the pipeline. Tombstone has until 8 p.m. Saturday [June 9] to finish the job."
Click here for O'Neill's complete story on CNN.com
Click here to access the Goldwater Institute Web site