Tombstone, Arizona (CNN) – The six Forest Service rangers suddenly crouched, whispering, on their way up the rocky mountain trail. It was early Friday afternoon, the first day of the Tombstone Shovel Brigade, and the rangers were out in force, hiking to the spot where dozens of volunteers worked with picks and shovels to move and bury Tombstone’s makeshift water line.
Shhh! Look! Do you see it?
The rangers stopped in their tracks. Binoculars emerged from pockets, and fingers pointed to a stand of trees.
And there it was, a Mexican spotted owl, perched high in a pine tree. It was a male, the rangers said, with his back turned to the intruders. He scratched and preened. But mostly, the owl seemed to be watching the nest in a nearby sycamore tree where his mate tended to an owlet.
The owl is a threatened species, and until a few days ago its presence in fire-scorched Miller Canyon was a matter of speculation. But now that it has surfaced, the owl could be a game-changer in the water war between the U.S. Forest Service and the Wild West city made famous by the 30-second gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Tombstone is trying to repair a 26-mile pipeline that has brought mountain spring water into the city since 1881. It was damaged during last summer’s Monument Fire and monsoon rains that brought mud, water and boulders crashing down the denuded slopes.
The Miller Peak Wilderness Area, where owls nest in the trees above Tombstone’s pipeline, was hit particularly hard. Sections of pipeline simply vanished, and Tombstone’s reservoir ran dry by August.
Kevin Rudd, project manager for the Tombstone pipeline, said the repaired pipeline needs to be shored up or it surely will be washed away when the monsoon rains return next month. Planned tasks for the shovel brigade include reinforcing the spring and diverting its flow by using boulders, sand, downed trees and other flood debris.
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.
With the conservative Goldwater Institute taking on Tombstone’s legal work, the court battle has blossomed into a full-blown states rights dispute. Tombstone is getting the attention of activists from Utah, New Mexico and other Western states who say the federal government has gone too far. It has become ground zero in a rekindled Sagebrush Rebellion.