Judge: County can’t move boulders blocking road

BOISE — A judge prohibited a central Idaho county from dispatching a front-end loader to clear boulders that block a remote mountain road, temporarily defusing a local-versus-federal flare-up in which one county official threatened to haul off a Bureau of Land Management manager in “pretty pink handcuffs.”

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled on Friday that Custer County officials for now can’t reopen Herd Creek Road after objections of the BLM, which argued the boulder-removal plan violated federal law.

The agency closed the road near a wilderness study area more than a decade ago. But county officials have been warning for months they would remove boulders on Sunday, arguing the BLM didn’t properly consult with locals.

Custer County sent heavy machinery to the closed road on Sunday but stopped short of removing the boulders after the decision by Winmill, who wrote the county failed to follow proper guidelines to wrest control of the road from the federal agency.

“Irreparable harm is likely because the defendants intend to reopen the road that passes through, and is proximate to, a wilderness study area that could be adversely affected by traffic,” Winmill wrote. “The road has been closed since 1999, and there is no showing of any need for reopening the road at this point.”

Winmill, who said the BLM has a likelihood of succeeding on its argument’s merits, scheduled a hearing Thursday in Pocatello on his temporary restraining order.

Custer County Commission Chairman Wayne Butts, among locals in this mountainous region who for years have chafed at federal control of about 97 percent of county territory, said Monday he envisions this case as establishing a beachhead in returning the region’s management to people who live here.

Since last year, Butts and other Custer County commissioners have been getting advice from Fred Kelly Grant, a constitutional lawyer and property rights activist who argues the federal government has failed to properly coordinate road closures and other management decisions with local officials.

This month, Butts called state BLM director Steve Ellis and warned him he would forcibly remove any federal officials who tried to stop the front loader from completing its business.

That included BLM district manager Joe Kraayenbrink in Idaho Falls.

“I told Steve if Joe showed up, I’d find a pretty pink pair of handcuffs to have him hauled away in,” Butts said, adding he was disappointed with Winmill’s restraining order. “I’m shocked that a federal judge would allow himself to be used as the arm of federal activism of the worst sort.”

Bureau of Land Management officials didn’t immediately return a phone call today.

In their filing seeking the restraining order, they argued that Herd Creek Road was blocked to protect values in the Jerry Peak Wilderness Study area, where no motorized vehicles are allowed.

Removing “BLM-installed barriers to access will constitute a trespass on lands belonging to the United State and likely result in damage to federal government property, damages to natural resources, and a violation of federal law including the U.S. Constitution,” BLM lawyers wrote.

Grant, the activist who is also working to block removal of dams on California’s Klamath River, didn’t return a phone call.

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