Saga of the G-O Road, 30 Years Later

The G-O Road winds its way into the high Siskiyous near Peak 8 and Doctor Rock. Photo: Michael Kauffman.
The G-O Road winds its way into the high Siskiyous near Peak 8 and Doctor Rock. Photo: Michael Kauffman.

Deep in the Siskiyou Wilderness between Gasquet and Orleans, a lost highway lies abandoned and unfinished. It winds through rough and rocky country, rolling hills, and leaning pines, where fire, snow, and rain rotate with the seasons. This incomplete stretch of pavement, known as the G-O Road, has had lasting and international impacts that still echo today, 30 years since its resolution.

This long story begins in 1963, when the U.S. Forest Service first began planning the construction of the G-O Road. Anticipated to run from Gasquet to Orleans, the 55-mile paved highway would have allowed for timber harvesting, mining, and other scheduled resource extraction in the area, which at the time was a part of Six Rivers National Forest. The region was (and is) ecologically rich, containing rare, endangered, and endemic species, old growth forest, and diverse conifers. At the time, it remained as one of the few remaining refuges for wolverines, mountain lions, pine martins, and several rare birds. The land is also sacred; the high country had been used for religious ceremonies for millennia and was cherished by the Karuk, Tolowa, and Yurok tribes.

Julian Lange at a NO-GO Road Protest. Photo: Native American Studies Graduate Student Symposium.
Activist Julian Lange at a NO-GO Road Protest.
Photo: Native American Studies Graduate Student Symposium.

The resulting push-back to this plan went on for over 25 years. Local tribes and environmental groups rallied against the proposed timber harvest and resource extraction, and the NO-GO Road campaign began.

In response to the controversy, the Forest Service hired Theodoratus Cultural Research, an anthropological consulting firm, to report on the potential cultural impacts of building such a road and permitting logging in the high country. The Theodoratus Report of 1979 supported the claim that the road was “potentially destructive of the very core of Northwest [Indian] religious beliefs and practices” and pointed out the cultural conflict between forest management and native spiritual practices. In 1981, sections of the high country land was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, causing the national Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to also recommend against building the road.

Despite that, a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was issued by the Forest Service in 1982, supporting logging and construction of the highway.

Chris Peters, President and CEO of the Seventh Generation Fund and Vice Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, was a plaintiff in the G-O Road case and was interviewed by the NEC for the April 26 EcoNews Report. “What was wrapped in the G-O Road was probably the final phase of cultural and spiritual genocide, and it was being perpetrated by the federal government,” states Peters in the Report. “What grew out of that was more of an identify movement.”

Several court battles ensued (in which the NEC served as a co-plaintiff), including a 1983 District Court Case and 1986 Appellate Court Decision; both of which ruled against the development. In 1988 the case was eventually brought all the way to the U.S. Supreme

Court, in Lyng vs. The Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association. Thirty years ago, in April 1988, the Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to indigenous tribes and environmental activists by ruling in favor of the Forest Service.

Despite this surprising loss in the Supreme Court, construction of the last few miles of road at Chimney Rock continued to be delayed by the lower court’s rulings, which were not overturned by the Supreme Court. These upheld the environmental law violations presented by groups including the NEC. These infractions, including those against the Clean Water Act and the need for a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement, meant the Forest Service continued to be prohibited from completing the project.

The G-O Road was finally stopped when Congress passed the 1984 California Wilderness Act, designating the land as the Siskiyou Wilderness Area and prohibiting logging and other resource extraction in the area. Without a purpose for such a road, it was never finished. All but 13 of the 55 miles had been completed. Today the California Wilderness Act protects 14,967,957 acres in California.

While on the surface this may appear a success story, there were repercussions. While the road was never completed and the region was utilized as wilderness rather than resource extraction, a precedent was set. The Supreme Court ruling made it clear that lands sacred to indigenous tribes were not protected, and Native American religion and culture was not protected under the U.S. Constitution. Repercussions of this are still seen today in instances such as Bears Ears National Monument, where the sacred land of the monument has been drastically decreased by the Trump administration.

U.S. courts continue to use the G-O Road ruling to develop, deregulate, and extract from sacred and ecologically vital lands. While the Siskiyous were saved, the legal precedent puts other areas at risk. The G-O Road battle did not end in 1988; the fight for public lands continues.

To learn more on this topic, listen to the NEC’s April 26 EcoNews Report here.