by Jon Christensen
ELKO COUNTY, Nev. - The Ruby Mountains climb
the western horizon, from sagebrush through piûon and juniper
to snow-capped peaks. Meltwater rushes down into ditches that
stretch to pastures and a shallow lake at the center of Ruby
I've always had a soft spot in my heart
for this part of Nevada, the land, the people, and what they're
There's tension in this landscape
between wild and pastoral. This is one of the last places to be
settled in the West and one of the last places to feel the pressure
of the outside world. It is easy to feel alone
But this place has also been discovered by
outsiders. The Ruby Mountains have become a destination for hikers
and hunters, skiers and snowmobilers. Elko County is being pulled
between locals and those from around the nation who are interested
in the 87 percent of Nevada that is public land.
This is the heart of the Sagebrush Rebellion -
a part of the West often characterized as violent and out of
control. "Don't tell a man what to do with his land" is still the
prevailing ethic, even if it is Forest Service or Bureau of Land
These days, the Forest Service
is taking most of the heat for enforcing grazing standards that
require ranchers to take cattle off allotments early. In recent
years, the Forest Service has canceled five grazing permits and cut
back most of the rest in the Ruby Mountains - pushed by a local
environmental group called the Elko County Conservation
Association, which sued the Forest Service to continue to enforce
the standards. The Nevada Wildlife Federation and the National
Wildlife Federation backed the suit.
County's economy really runs on tourism and gambling, mining,
services, retail stores and government offices, not on ranching.
But Elko, the county seat, still fancies itself the last cowtown in
America: A tourism brochure promises you'll find "the Old West as
it was meant to be." And listening to elected officials, one might
think the county was ready to form a militia to protect its
"This is a war we're
in," said Gene Gustin, chairman of the Elko County public-land-use
advisory commission, at a "Win Back the West" rally earlier this
I've come to Elko County to find out what
it's like on the front lines.
Water is for fighting
Like so many Western wars, this one broke out
over water. Kelley Spring is an unremarkable trickle of water that
emerges from the dry mountainside above the Duval ranch at the
north end of Ruby Valley. Don Duval installed a pipe to carry water
from the spring on the Humboldt National Forest to a nearby private
pasture, in 1992. Duval believed he had a right to the spring
water. He still believes it.
But last year, when
Forest Service rangers discovered Duval's work, they ordered him to
tear it out. When he didn't, the federal agency took him to
"A lot of people felt
it was stupid to take it out," says Duval. "But I'd about given up.
Then we got some help and decided to push it and take it as far as
we could go. Eventually you get to the point where you have to
fight back to keep them from running over you all the time."
State Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko,
running against an even more radical opponent, took up the battle
cry of Kelley Spring and helped rally 500 people to build a fence
around the spring. On the new fence, they hung signs: "The land
inside this enclosure, and the water, belong to the people of the
great state of Nevada." The Elko Daily Free Press dubbed it the
"Ruby Valley Tea Party."
In court, the case was
open-and-shut since Duval had never filed for a water right with
the state. He eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of
damaging federal property, paid a $200 fine and dismantled the
But by then, the fight was out of his
hands. The next day, 40 people put the pipe back. When Forest
Service investigators questioned Carpenter about the incident, he
told them that if the agency "continued to push, there probably
would be bloodshed," according to the Elko Daily Free Press.
The local newspaper portrays a community under
siege. "What's the plan ... shoot us or burn us out?" read the
headline on a March editorial warning that Elko could be the next
"Waco" or "Randy Weaver."
"Nevadans are hostile and for
good reason," wrote editorial page editor Dan Steninger. "Perhaps
when the central government and its agents in Nevada start to
operate under the law by ending their claim to our public lands and
their control over our private property, relations will improve.
Until then the fight will continue. ... We'd point out it was
easier to burn a building full of families than it will be to
impose martial law on the State of Nevada."
Hatred of the federal government festers on the isolated ranches of
Ruby Valley. Many here are descendants of pioneers who wanted to
get as far away from the developed world as they could. They lived
off commerce on the California trail, the Central Pacific railroad,
the Victory Highway and I-80. But they felt alone in their
kingdoms, on ranches high in the Great Basin, with only the sky and
the mountains watching over them.
still remember when the federal government was represented by a
Forest Service district ranger who traveled the mountains alone, on
horseback. Now the federal government is in their faces every day,
represented by a blizzard of paperwork, sent by office-bound
bureaucrats who deploy wave after wave of young troops in pickup
trucks to monitor them.
the paperwork and the Forest Service staff is rural Nevada's open
landscape and the feeling of freedom it imparts to anyone who
lives, or even visits, here. It is hard to imagine, when you look
across sage-covered land toward distant mountains, that every
square inch of that land is spoken for, managed, part of a plan.
A family on the
At the southern end of
Ruby Valley, next door to the Ruby Marshes National Wildlife
Refuge, Cliff Gardner is grazing cows on national forest land
adjacent to his ranch. That's normal throughout the West. The
difference here is that Gardner's grazing permit was revoked a year
ago. The Forest Service canceled it after Gardner put cattle on an
area the agency had re-seeded after a fire.
rangers have not removed his cattle for fear of a confrontation
with the well-armed family. The agency has sued the Gardners and is
waiting for the case to get through the courts.
I call Gardner from a phone booth in Shanty Town, a small
scattering of trailers and campers near the refuge. An election
sign for his failed race against John Carpenter hangs on a shed
wall. A firebrand, Gardner is rarely at a loss for words. I have
listened to him rant for hours about how "the government destroys
resources and the rights of individuals' with its mismanagement of
forests, refuges and parks. During one long visit, his teen-age
son, a gun trader, invited me to join him on a rabbit hunt, with a
But Gardner has clammed
up. He feels burned because the media lump him and other angry
ranchers with the Oklahoma City bombing, Montana militiamen and
"You don't understand.
It's not us that's the outlaws," he says before hanging up. "It's
not people who are trying to survive who are breaking the law. It's
government agents breaking the law."
In the line of duty
This worries Kevin Atchley, the Forest Service
rangeland management specialist who oversees Gardner's allotment.
"If I'm the lawbreaker and he sees himself as upholding the law,
then whatever he does is correct," he says. "You wonder if he knows
where the line is. I think he knows quite well. But I do wonder if
he'll step over the line, if in his own mind the boundary is pushed
into his private rights."
Atchley filed an
"incident report" on Gardner the first time they met. "He got right
in my face," says the pony-tailed range conservationist. "He told
me that if I was any kind of man I would find another agency to
Atchley works out of the Forest
Service office in the small town of Wells, at the north end of the
Ruby Mountains. But soon he will be moving to the Mountain City
office in the Jarbidge Mountains, an hour north of Elko. He hopes
it will be calmer for his work and for his family. He says his wife
doesn't like him to travel alone in the Ruby
The Forest Service advises employees
to travel in pairs whenever possible. Atchley usually travels
alone. But he is
"I've always been
respectful of private property," he says. "Especially here, it's a
matter of self-preservation to make sure you're on public land. You
don't want to take a chance here."
I should talk to his boss, Doug Sorensen, the range supervisor in
charge of the Ruby Mountains. Doug's wife, Linda, is the
receptionist at the Forest Service office in
Linda says she, too, worries when Doug
goes to Ruby Valley. "It's hard for me to decide if I'm being
paranoid," she says, "but when the Elko Daily Free Press runs
articles quoting people around here saying that this is going to
lead to bloodshed. ..." Her voice trails
"Our district motto is,
you can't be too paranoid," Doug concludes with a rueful
The Sorensens have tried to keep their
work away from their family. Their daughter is a friend of one of
the Duval kids. But their 15-year-old son, Derrick, was thrust into
the controversy when a substitute teacher told his class they
should all go to the Kelley Spring "tea party." Derrick told the
teacher he didn't think he would because his father had found the
unauthorized spring box on public
"No, you probably
shouldn't, because they might lynch you," Derrick says the teacher
Derrick says he didn't feel threatened.
"I knew he was out of line." The teacher was eventually
But then the back window of the
Sorensens' van was shot out when they left it overnight in the
school parking lot just a couple of blocks from their house. They
don't know if it was random vandalism, or a
The Sorensens now have their house for
sale. They're moving to Utah where Doug has found another range job
with the Forest Service. "I'm not running away from this fight," he
says. "You just get to the point you feel it's time for somebody
else to come in and take over."
A small town divided
Wells is a windswept crossroads that has shed
its skin like a snake in order to stay alive. The first town center
was on the Central Pacific Railroad. In the 1940s, Main Street
moved a block south when the cross-country Victory Highway came
through. These days, the town's truck stops, gas stations, stores,
casinos and motels cluster around the exit ramps off Interstate
Many residents resent how change passes by
Wells and takes their children away. The population has hovered
around 1,000 for the better part of this century. The outside world
and the federal government loom large as targets of bewildered
rage. It only takes a few conversations to fill pages with
One of the milder ones
comes from Scott Taylor, manager of the 4-Way Casino: "Tell the
federal government to get out of our face."
there are also quieter voices here.
Swanson, a high school teacher in Wells, writes a homespun column
called "The Brighter Side" in the local weekly, the Ruby Mountain
Review. Swanson tells me the tensions have divided the school, her
church, and her book
"There is a schism," she
says. "It's getting nerve-wracking, if not dangerous. I hate that
environmentalism has a bad connotation to so many here. And it's
very hard to be vocal about opposition to the Sagebrush Rebellion.
It's painful because you have to take sides. I don't like to take
sides. I'd like to get along."
former mayor of Wells and owner of the Chinatown casino and motel
near the interstate exit, sees the federal government through a
businessman's eyes and conflicts as natural to
"I know there is
tension," he says. "Wells is surrounded by a lot of ranching
business. So naturally it's an issue. But if they don't like the
policy, they should aim at policy-makers, not agency employees."
Out in the
That's how it's
supposed to work. But it's the people on the front lines who end up
trying to keep the peace day-to-day.
Atchley leaves his Forest Service office in Wells at sunrise to
work "in the field." Two hours later, he pulls up to a simple white
ranch house on the west side of the Ruby Mountains. Fred Zaga
stands in his driveway in a dirty T-shirt and sweat-ringed cowboy
hat. A cauldron of water steams over a piûon wood
"Don't ask what we're
doing," Zaga says as Atchley introduces agency biologist Kathy
Ramsey and me. "We're going to roast some forest rangers," he says
with a deep laugh. Atchley and Ramsey chuckle nervously.
They have come to "run a green line' - a
step-by-step survey of streambank plants - along Toyn Creek, which
flows through the Forest Service allotment where Zaga runs his
cattle. They ask if Zaga wants to come along.
Zaga invites me to ride up the mountain in his pickup. As we climb
into the truck, I ask him what's really cooking. "Basco crab legs,"
he says, "lamb tails."
As we bounce up the dirt
road beside Toyn Creek, through aspen groves and over hot
sagebrush-covered hills, Zaga tells me the new utilization
standards, which force ranchers to take their cattle home when
they've eaten only half the grass, are too
"I'm proud of my
allotment," he says. "And I'll tell you why my allotment is
excellent: cooperation; proper attitude of the permittee, Forest
Service and BLM; and flexibility. I try to stay one step ahead of
the agencies so I don't have to put up with the crap a lot of those
guys have to put up with."
Zaga readily agrees
that ranchers have to change. He was the first rancher in Elko
County to sign a cooperative management plan with the federal
agencies on his allotments. "I get along with them better than
anybody," he says. "But even I have a tough time keeping my
attitude good now. Too much is coming from upstairs. They've got to
give guys like Kevin more authority to manage these lands. We don't
always agree but we work things out."
surprised when I ask if he knows Atchley is transferring this
summer. "See," he says. "Just the time you get a working
relationship with someone, they ship their ass somewhere else."
When we stop beside the creek, Zaga says to
Atchley, "Why didn't you tell me you're leaving? Some guy better
not show up here playing Gestapo."
taken aback. "That offends me to liken us to that," he says.
"I understand," says
For a moment, they are both quiet.
Then Zaga says, "That bothers me that you're
says Atchley. "We got along good."
they spend most of their time together arguing, both Zaga and
Atchley say they've learned from each other. They spend the next
hour in a prickly, but good-natured debate about the
"You have poa
bulbosa. Is that desirable?" Atchley asks the
"I didn't go to
college," Zaga says, sitting in the shade of his pickup cab. "Grab
Atchley steps to the creek and
pulls a plant up by the roots. "It's a type of introduced
bluegrass, what we call an early seral, like cheatgrass."
"I don't think that's a
problem," Zaga says. "Look at this creek, it's in good shape."
"I'll admit that. But it
could be better. This is not desirable," says Atchley, waving the
alien grass at Zaga.
Later, Atchley tells me he
knows his transfer "will be interpreted as running scared. I
applied because it's a promotion. Some of it is being tired of
dealing with the same crap all the time. They ought to know the
difference between a good grass and a bad grass."
Atchley kneels to check the identity of a long
stringy leaf bobbing in the cool rushing water of Toyn Creek. "Just
because we go out together," he says, "doesn't mean we'll agree
about what we see and what is desired. I've gone to riparian areas
that are so overused, it's like they were plowed. I tell them,
"This is unacceptable." And we argue about it. For a long time
they've been able to do what they wanted ... for a long time."
The strength of the Forest Service is that
while Atchley will move on, whoever replaces him will continue to
keep the pressure on. Almost certainly, he won't be replaced by a
live-and-let-live good-old-boy. The agency's culture no longer has
a place for them.
The only difference between
Atchley and his replacement will be in the personal mix of
diplomacy and tenacity the new range con brings to the job.
Locals assert local
While Atchley and
other field people are trying to work things out with ranchers on
the ground, the war of attrition continues elsewhere in Elko
County. It's 7 a.m. on Monday at the Forest Service's district
office on Last Chance Road in Elko.
agency officials are meeting over coffee and donuts with the Elko
County Grazing Task Force, a group set up by the county
commissioners to assert local control over public land. The
commission was inspired by Kelley Spring and steadily reduced
grazing in the Ruby Mountains.
Leta Collord, a
gray-haired People for the West! activist and coordinator of the
county grazing task force, is alarmed that the county's cattle
population has dropped from 220,000 to 140,000 head since 1980. She
blames the agency. Wide awake, she presents a litany of complaints
about water and fire management and utilization standards to
officials still rubbing sleep from their eyes.
Then comes an olive branch. "We're not talking about ownership of
public land," she says. "Our problem is communication and
coordination. The county has real potential for resolving these
It is civil enough as meetings go. The
officials thank Collord for her presentation. But the civility
lacks depth. The Elko County Commission and the Forest Service have
so far been unable to agree even to share information and meeting
There's no agreement because the task
force is part of an array of tactics to seek county control of
public land, if not ownership. County commissioners have passed
resolutions and ordinances asserting jurisdiction over public land,
and spent $187,000 on a lawsuit against the Forest Service over
private water rights on public lands.
front, volunteers have gathered enough signatures to create a grand
jury to investigate agency "abuses," including what Collord says
are "unsubstantiated accusations' of violent threats and
intimidation against Forest Service employees by local residents.
"Elko County's got a black
eye out there," says Collord. This image of a violent backwater is
a real sore spot among locals.
Back at Kelley Spring
I return to Kelley Spring to see if anything
has changed here.
Dust rises from a corral full
of bawling calves at the Duval ranch. Branding irons turn red in a
piûon fire. A cowboy holds a rope taut at each end of a calf,
while Don Duval cuts a "double bell wattle" in the loose hide of
its neck, and a young neighbor girl empties a syringe into its
The Duvals follow "an old tradition" of
"head and heel branding," says one of the half dozen neighbors who
have come on horseback to help out. "It takes longer but it's more
This is the friendly, familial, communal
end of ranching. But there is also an inevitable macho tone to
brandings. A cowboy passes me a "Ruby Mountain oyster" hot from the
fire and a cold beer to chase it down as the sun slowly climbs the
morning sky. When they learn I'm a reporter, someone behind my back
jokes, "this is a militia." The others laugh.
Even with the joking and posturing, the mood here has changed since
calls for a revolution rang from Kelley Spring. Duval says he was
on the right side of that fight, but he would do things differently
if there were a next time. However, when the Nevada Cattlemen's
Association requested $500 last spring to fight enforcement of
grazing standards, Duval ponied up. Chalk it up to peer pressure.
Duval says some Forest Service standards seem
too strict. But he can also see the point, "if you're really doing
damage to riparian areas. In some ways, I can see the Forest
Service side. It seems to me both sides have to bend a little here
Duval says a new range con stopped
by the other day to talk about plans for the ranch's allotments.
"Usually they just write you a letter. At least they were courteous
enough to stop by the house. It seems like there might be a little
change in attitude," he says. "I think it might get better. It
can't get much worse."
As I drive out of
Ruby Valley, over Secret Pass, through Elko, and down the long
lonely highway home, I wonder if Nevada, whose motto is "Battle
born," can find a peaceful path. Kelley Spring, the grazing task
force, the grand jury, the give-and-take between Atchley and Zaga -
they're all a series of probing skirmishes. In a lawsuit, it would
be called the discovery period, where each side tries to find out
what the other side has. Only when this back-and-forth winds down
will the sides get down to serious bargaining.
There are signs that even in Elko County people are backing away
from war. But they seem to be waiting for someone to make a move
that will bring the whole community - including the federal workers
who represent the outside world - together to preserve what they
most value about living in this landscape. I hope they make their
is Great Basin regional editor for High Country News, based in
Carson City, Nevada.