Judge Tosses Surprise Canyon Lawsuit

Surprise Canyon

A federal judge has tossed out a lawsuit aiming to open Surprise Canyon to ORV traffic. Wilderness Society Photo.

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."

Surprise Canyon Ruling.pdf126.47 KB


Kudo's to Earth Justice, a job well done! These stalwarts for the National Parks deserve are high praise and hardy thanks.

Kudos to Judge O'Neill! We can't afford to loose any more pristine parkland than we already have ( Alaska ) because someone feels they have the right to ruin God's wilderness. I enjoy Death Vally and go there as often as I can. The National Park Service does a fine job. Keep up the good work.

The judge ruling the parties had no standing is not the same as the judge ruling that Suprise Canyon is a road, or no road. The judge merely felt that his court was not the place to make that decision.

It is a temporary win for the "no-road" people, and delays any eventual final determination. But the story isn't over yet.

I have a copy of an old photo of a 1950's era Buick sitting in front of the ruins of the mill at Panamint, and indeed, there are old, 2-wheel drive cars sitting up there as I type this. They were not flown in by helicopter.

The fact that the miners, and Inyo County, have not maintained the road as of late does not change it's status.

I personally passed 2 four-wheel drive vehicles driving up the road while back-packing down-canyon from Panamint as late as the year 2000.

What keeps being lost in all these articles about Surprise Canyon is that the current road through the narrowest part of the canyon was dynamited out of solid rock back in the 1870's. Historical references indicate that the "canyon" was little more that a narrow slot prior to that, barely wide enough for a single horse and rider to pass through. What folks want to call a "miracle" or "natural wonder" today was forever altered by man more than 100 years ago, expressly for the purpose of creating a road passable by animal-drawn wagons, and later, gasoline and diesel powered vehicles.

Anyone who has actually been there, and is honest with him/herself, knows in their heart that there is a road up Surprise Canyon, regardless of which side of the issue they side with.

I concur with OB's comments: There is most surely a road up Surprise Cyn. I suspect that the majority of people who claim that there is no road up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City have never been to the area. If anyone has information on any other roads opened for vehicular traffic into Panamint City, which by the way has numerous private resdencies, Please e-mail me the route or provide me with a map showing the alternate route. P.S. I have numerous maps showing the Surprise Canyon Road in existance to this day.
P.S. George you statement strike me as being one of an "elitist mentality". I'm sure your a nice person but are you saying that My dad, by driving up the Surprise Canyon Road (maintained by the County) during the period from 1937 - 1972 was ruining God's wilderness. I cannot belive that there was ever any INTENT on anyone's part when they made the ascent/descent to PC to ruin the wilderness after the severe washout that precipitated this rather insane issue. It should prove to be an interesting event when my wife and I visit PC soon. I don't mind the hike but my wife's wheelchair may need to be motorized and a warn winch attached. So much for equal access. Rebuilding the road could have helped.

If it wasn't a road, why was the "road" cherry stemmed in the Desert Protection Act of 1994?
This is nothing but a BS response in bed with the eco elitists!

To: Chair, California Desert District Advisory Council
C/O Bureau of Land Management
6221 Box Springs Blvd
Riverside, CA 92505

From: Packrat

Subject: Panamint Valley, Surprise Canyon

Date: January 29, 2003

I am absolutely disgusted that the BLM, out of Ridgecrest no less, has installed a barrier at the mouth of Surprise Canyon to prevent vehicles from driving beyond the Chris Wicht Camp and on up to Panamint City.

All of this because The Center for Biological Diversity has filled a law suite against the BLM for failure to implement a environmental protection measurement?

What this equates to me is that the BLM has stopped all vehicular traffic from using this
RS 2477 designated road. A Court injunction should be filled immediately against the Center for Biological Diversity, to allow vehicular traffic to use this road to Panamint City, whilst the Environmental Impact Report is being established.

Its like saying the people, with their vehicles, that use this RS 2477 road are GUILTY of using a one hundred year old road and will not be allowed to access Panamint City. The people and vehicles should be allowed to use this road whilst the BLM is preparing the EIR.

Furthermore, for the two sections of the, so-called “stream”, are being considered for designation as a “Wild and Scenic River” are completely ridiculous. Anyone with any notion of common sense would not even think this way. Do you think the general public really believes this? If that were the case then would the California Department of Fish and Game require boat permits to use this so called river. I don’t think so!

Being that The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit against the BLM, and the BLM has, in turn, closed off this road to Panamint City, is another classic case of big government closing areas to the general public, let alone the private landowners up in
Panamint City, CA.

In summary I would like to say the following as a matter of public record:

1. I am against the closure of this RS 2477 road going up to Panamint City, which is in the Death Valley National Park system.

2. I am against the BLM for even considering that this “Rivulet” of water would
be even be considered as a wild and scenic river.

3. I am against the Center of Biological Diversity for filling the lawsuit for the
BLM’s failure to produce a EIR, in an efficient manner. This is just another
waste of taxpayer money!



Epilogue: I still stand to this day on what I sent the BLM in the year of 2003
Been up to Panamint City many times, but not after the summer of
1984. The Government, Environmental people, etc., have way too
much to say and keep on locking all of us Desert folk out of the area,
with the exception of walking and enough is enough...

Been up to Panamint City many times, but not after the summer of 1984.

I don't understand why yer yappin about not being able to drive your ATVs into the canyon when you haven't been there in 23 years!

This sure is interesting. Access to Panamint City is as it was when the first prospectors showed up and chased the local Indians away. You gotta walk!

I find it interesting that you allow and provide for comments, but don't post them all. I posted a comment the other day, I didn't agree with you, so I guess that's why it hasn't showed up.

Kudos to the Judge and hurray for the canyon. There'll be a lot of sniveling by the drones you betcha, but there always was and always will be, and at least the canyon will be too.

"There'll be a lot of sniveling by the drones..."

You can bet that had this decision gone the other way there would be much more "sniveling", and more lawsuits. Drove to Panamint City as late as 1978 never once using 4wd. It was a road then and should still be one.
Denying the passage rights to a 4wd enthusiast is one thing but denying the passage rights of valid mining claim holders is a whole different story.

As late as 1978?! Wasn't Elvis still alive then? Please! Drive your death trap over the 97.5% of the continental US that isn't wilderness! Valid mining claims! Ha!

Elvis died in 1977.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a first clas pain in the a** to almost everyone. They are against everything. Look them up, they have over 300 law suits pending at the moment and their record is 9 out of 10 suits dismissed as frivilous.

That still doesn't make them harmless. They cost many, including private land holders 1000's of $ just so they can be heard.

It's too bad, the frivilous cannot at this time be made to pay the expenses of those they abuse with the legal system.

Making wild claims, like the Center for Biological Diversity has had "9 out of 10 suits dismissed as frivilous [sic]", and then telling readers to "look them up" rather than providing a link to back the assertion intimates the fraudulence of such claims.

At any rate, the Center for Biological Diversity didn't bring this lawsuit; it was brought by ATVers and thrown out by the judge who ruled the ATVers had no standing to bring the claim. Talk about frivolous!

ATVers are the ones in this case who "abuse the legal system". They should stop suing to gain access to Congressionally designated wilderness and somehow come to terms with the fact that they can only ride their ATVs in 97.5% of the continental USA.

Get off the bike and hike! Can't we all just move around a little without the help of a motor?! With each generation, we become less healthy in terms of weight. Is it really that horrible to have to use our feet especially in the name of preservation?

Err, to reiterate: The road up Surprise Canyon is not, and never has been since the day Panamint City was built and the roadbed was dynamited out of the rock of the canyon, wilderness. It was explicitly cherry-stemmed out of the wilderness area when the wilderness area was created in 1994 because of the rights of valid mine owners in the Panamint City area. Indeed, the only reason the road was not re-built when it washed out in 1984 was because the price of silver had fallen to a point where it was no longer economically viable to work the mines up there, but the mines are still up there, and they are still private property, and the mine owners still have the legal right under U.S. laws to go up the canyon to their mines and did so as late as 2001 by hitching rides with the 4x4 types -- well, they did until the lawsuit closed the road anyhow. If the price of silver goes back up the mines would be viable to work again, well, except for one thing -- now that the road is blocked by the Center for Biodiversity's legal actions, you can't get there from here because they wouldn't be able to get their bulldozers and ore trucks up the canyon.

I realize that stealing private property using lawsuits in government courts because of a belief that private property is evil is typical behavior for environmental organizations, but that still doesn't make it right. I applaud those environmental organizations which work with landowners to purchase their lands for environmental restoration purposes, or which work to organize land swaps so that land like that at Panamint City isn't seized without compensation, and if the Center for Biodiversity was one of those organizations I would applaud their work. But they aren't. They're in the business of stealing people's land without compensation by filing lawsuits to cut off access to private property based upon frivolous notions such as that a county road is somehow "wilderness" and must be "preserved". Rather than go at it the ethical way by working with landowners, they instead use the power of government to steal from landowners without compensation, which is just plain wrong.

My Father and Uncle drove to Panamint City in the late thirties. Their mode of transportation was a a 1932 Chevrolet. No granny gear, no 4x4. They saw Panamint City before it was stripped of machinery to support the war effort. I heard this story often and went there myself in 1969. The road was washed out but I made it as far as Chris Wicht's camp by motorcycle and hiked the remaing distance, most of it on good condition two-track. I returned several times over the years while the county was maintainingm the road. These times using two and four wheel drive pick-ups. One time in 71 one I met a couple in their Corvette in Panamint City. Since that time our gonerment has seen fit to extend the the boundaries of Death Valley National Park far beyond the Valley itself. Panamint City and Surprize Canyon are NOT in Death Valley! The last time I visited was in 2004. I was amazed at the amount of recent vintage machinery in and around the City. In the history of America this area has been a mining area. All appearances are that it still is, even if only of historical interest. That is what draws me to it. But I'm getting old and the hike is not appreciated when most of it is over a perfectly good road. The drivel I read from those who applaud the permanent closure of Surprize Canyon leads me to believe that they have never been there and have no interest in it other than as an outlet for their misdirected energy.

Earthjustice can kiss my butt, they are just a bunch of lawyer parasites--NOT environmentalists--who make their living by trying to deny use of public lands to the taxpayers who OWN them.

Surprise Canyon isn't pristine wilderness, it's a historical site that was altered for mining purposes over 100 years ago and should still be accessible by road as it was intended to be long before NPS encroached upon it.

These people won't stop until the only place we're allowed to go is our living rooms playing video games and filing law suits. And who says" Kudos ", anymore?

Off roaders are the ones that pick up trash on the trails ie: toilet paper and water bottles. We treasure, clean, enjoy and experience these place with our friends and families. We take our children to these places and they take thiers. You people close it down , keeping us out of the natural cycle. In the mean time keeping us out of the places we love and enjoy, places many of you have never been or will ever go. Places that you will try to keep away from my children just to preserve your self rightous adjenda.

This comment was edited to remove gratuitous insults and language.

Please post a map showing the 97.5% of America that I can ride my ATV. I would like to go there. Who's makinr wild claims? Try 35% and getting smaller.

Have you ever road a dirt bike? Do you know how much energy it takes to ride one? Do you know how healthy you have be to ride a dirt bike? Do you know this is about jeeps and not motorcycles? Do you even have a clue about what your talking about?

Hey Frank and Ned,

I bet you both live in the San Francisco area with nothing more to do but drink your lattes and think of stuff to destroy the freedoms that we are supposed to have. Democrats obviously. More government with my latte please. Maybe we should be taxing the hell out of lattes since those cups are just filling up landfills and killing fish and birds. Wait, they don't go after that kind of stuff that would interrupt their lives.

The problem is with so many things in this state alone. We keep voting in the likes of Boxer and Feinstein. The 9th District court of appeals. What a ridiculous organization. We vote for something, they don't like it, so they throw it out. This is just another example.

Frank and Ned just love more government, oh and they just hate guns. Guns are evil too. People that want to enjoy the desert and the park systems are evil.

The comment on the frivilous law suits is correct. Another example, in part, of why the government, local to federal, is in the shape that it is in.

I have never been to Panamint City, but have been to many places in the area and that was my next trek. I am a native here and it kills me to see the likes of these "organizations (or is it organisms...a.k.a. parasites)" come in and tell me what I can and can't do. I pay my taxes and a hell of a lot of them. So, back off and go fight for this country like our fore-fathers did.

This comment was edited to remove gratuitous attacks and language.

All you Californians... None of this would've taken place in Nevada. Death Valley and all your desert sites are overrated anyway. Get over it and move on. End of story.

I too am a tax payer & I am also a DAV. I am a off-roader & a hiker. BLM land "is a land of many uses". There are several other near-by canyons that are open to off-roaders. I have hiked the canyon & found it very unique. I think even you would enjoy the peace & quite, wild life and scenic surroundings. It is quite a hike, but well worth the effort. The cabins were well maintained and hikers seem take very good care of them & the surrounding area. If you make the hike, there might even be enough supplies to allow you to stay overnight. Just in case your to tired to hike out the same day--just haul out your trash. There is running water & a lot of area to explore. I have also been to other places where I off-road. I usually have to spend a lot of my time hauling the trash out left by other off-roaders & other issues to numerous to mention here. There is plenty of land for all to enjoy. It is no more your land than it is for the people you try to put down & belittle. There are many sites on the INTERNET with pictures of the area. I have taken many & if you would like to see them let me know. If we didn't have rules, laws etc, there would not be any land for any of us to enjoy.

Off road vehicle users; 4WD extremists have no right to this wilderness as now covered in the expanded Death Valley park. I hiked up to Panamint City in spring 2007, and it is a unique area with actual water running out the mouth of Surprise Cyn. I would'nt have liked it very much choking on the exhaust from some jerks trying to winch their way up a steep little gorge such as it is, with steel cables. Sure, maybe Edward Abbey took a Rambler up there back in the 60's before the 20 feet of gravel washed out( you can still see it clinging to the wall), and good for the good old days. If you want access to your silver deposits, do it like the old miners of the and take a mule up there, if you can even do that!

For the purposes of RS 2477, a "road" for access for miners that Original Bigfoot writes about, is not the same as a public "highway" as RS 2477 sanctions.

Miners have access to their mines. There is an constitutionally protected right of access. And, miners often improve their access roads.

But is that a public "highway" in the meaning of RS 2477?

RS 2477 was written so people moving west would not be blocked by private land holders. The US was handing out a lot of land in the West. The concern was, if someone claimed the land as a private homestead or mineral claim, that was the route of a wagon train or other public highway, they could effectively stop or extort from people traveling west. So, the idea was to allow the public highway to continue.

Access to a mine has nothing to do with a public highway. It is access to a mine. If the road was built for that purpose, that is not a public highway I believe.

Now, Original Bigfoot is right about the meaning of a court throwing a case out because it lacks standing to bring a suit. It is not a decision on the merits. But if the point is the state does not have standing, wouldn't that undermine the state's claims of their interpretation of RS 2477, that it provides state-owned right of access to and through federal land? After all, if the state does not have standing in such a case, who would have standing?

Sounds like the best case the state would have is on appeal, not by trying to find someone with standing to judge the merits, right?

A mining road is not a public highway.