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Showdown on the Nevada range

Ranchers trespass on public lands, says the BLM

 

FALLON, Nev. - Ben Colvin and Jack Vogt have grazed cattle on vast swaths of public land in Nevada without paying a cent for seven years. But the jig was up on July 26, when contract cowboys working for the Bureau of Land Management rounded up 62 cows and calves owned by Colvin and shipped them to Snow's Livestock Auction here in Fallon to pay for $72,000 in back grazing fees and fines. Two days later, the BLM began impounding cattle owned by Vogt, who owes $237,000 to the federal government.

The BLM accuses the ranchers of trespassing on public lands. The ranchers insist they own the forage on their allotments, which together cover 1,802 square miles.

The impoundment set off another high-profile skirmish in the long-running sagebrush rebellion in Nevada. In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has borne the brunt of the conflict. A nasty fight over a remote road into the Jarbidge Wilderness in northern Nevada led to the resignation of forest supervisor Gloria Flora in 1999 (HCN, 11/22/99: Nevadans drive out forest supervisor).

Now the BLM is being drawn into the conflict. Bob Abbey, the agency's state director in Nevada, has spent much of the last four years trying to keep a low profile, while traveling the state meeting with ranchers. His most public initiative has been a multimillion-dollar fire rehabilitation and restoration program that benefits ranchers as much as it does wildlife and the environment. "When I first came into the state four years ago, I was concerned I had to build some credibility," Abbey says. "Our focus was to build relationships and not just tear them down."

Abbey says the BLM has tried to quietly persuade rebellious ranchers like Colvin and Vogt, and a handful of others who openly flout the law, to change their ways. "Not knowing them, I thought we could make positive resolutions without having to take action, but I was wrong," he says. "We've run out of patience."

This spring, the BLM paved the way for action by getting support for the impoundment from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Nevada Attorney General, Frankie Sue del Papa. Local sheriffs in Esmeralda and Nye counties, where Colvin and Vogt run cattle, as well as a handful of other counties warned the BLM not to impound any cattle in their jurisdictions. But after receiving warnings from the Justice Department and the Attorney General that the impoundments were legal, they backed off.

Serfs under King BLM

While the BLM has gotten official support, reaction at the grass roots has been decidedly less supportive. Colvin and Vogt, and the loose movement of which they are part, have received banner coverage in the Nevada media, where their cause is presented on an equal footing with the BLM. The largest newspaper in the state, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has sided with the ranchers.

Rebel supporters were out in force at the auction yard in Fallon on Aug. 7. Protesters brandished signs saying "BLM cattle rustlers," and, in case the message wasn't clear: "Cattle rustling is a capital offense." They passed out notices warning buyers away, and they jeered BLM officials.

"This is not a state, it's a territory," said Janine Hansen, one of the leaders of the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood, which organized the picket. "We're not sovereign citizens. We're serfs under King BLM and King Forest Service. And it's no better under Bush than it was under Clinton."

Back near the stock pens, a cowboy named Danny Berg took notes while Gary Snow, the owner of the auction yard, sorted cattle. "These are Ben Colvin's cattle, not the government's," Berg said. Ranchers don't need a permit to graze cattle, he said. "They own the grass.

"It's not public lands," he added. "It's a split estate."

That is the essence of the argument that has been advanced by a rancher named Wayne Hage, who inspired this new-wave sagebrush rebellion by openly defying the Forest Service in Nevada. After the Forest Service impounded his cattle in 1991, Hage sued the agency for "taking" his ranch (HCN, 9/21/91). The case is still in court.

Ben Colvin is eager to follow Hage's example. "I'd like to go as far as he's going," says Colvin. "I'm gonna keep fighting for my property."

Colvin runs cattle on 538,000 acres of public land. "I don't own the land," he concedes. But the "water, forage, the improvements, and the right to the whole allotment," he asserts, are his. "I bought all this allotment, lock, stock and barrel," he adds. "It's all mine."

It turns out Colvin will have his day in court. He arrived at the auction yard with a temporary restraining order from a district court just moments before his cattle were to be auctioned.

When the BLM went ahead and tried to auction Jack Vogt's cattle, protesters shouted: "They're stolen cattle!" and "Don't bid on 'em!" And no one did.

More rebellions ahead

Despite the long history of the sagebrush rebellion in Nevada, all of this has left BLM state director Abbey reeling. "I worry about where we are at in Nevada," he says.

But he remains resolute. The impoundments were "intended to send a message," he says. "It's important that we prevail or we would have more people question our authority on the public lands."

But quelling the rebellion will require even more impoundments, and inevitably more confrontation. There are around seven to 10 other ranchers who regularly trespass, agency officials say, about half of them for ideological reasons. Although that is only a small fraction of the 700 ranchers with public-land grazing permits in Nevada, each impoundment raises the profile of the rebellion.

And some of those ranchers are Indians, who have an even longer-running battle with the federal government. Raymond Yowell, a rancher from the Te-Moak tribe of the Western Shoshones in northern Nevada, which has refused to pay fees for grazing for many years, says other ranchers "are starting to be treated like us, or how we were in the past, and experience the might of the federal government." Carrie and Mary Dann are Western Shoshone ranchers who have openly defied the BLM for more than 25 years by grazing cattle and horses on public land without a permit around their ranch in Crescent Valley. In August, Carrie Dann traveled to the United Nations office in Geneva to assert their rights and protest against the BLM. At home, the Dann sisters face a notice of impoundment from the BLM and a bill for more than $1 million.

 

Jon Christensen writes from Carson City, Nevada.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Nevada Committee for Full Statehood, 775/352-8262
  • BLM Nevada State Office, 775/861-6400.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Christensen