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Know the West

County commissioner courts bloodshed


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, The Great Basin: America's wasteland seeks a new identity.

Dick Carver barnstorms the West telling crowds of ranchers how he faced down an armed federal agent to open a road in the Toiyabe National Forest.

"We're going to bring the power of government back to the people," Carver shouts above the raucous cheers of around 350 people, most of them in cowboy hats, at a "Win Back the West" rally in Alturas, Calif. "They're not going to take us down. They can't buck the people out here. We don't have anything to lose."

A rancher and county commissioner from Tonopah, Nev., Carver is an inspirational firebrand in a growing movement that is organizing counties to take control of public lands. Carver says his first step was to convince Nye County to declare that the "public lands belong to the state of Nevada." Carver then commandeered a county bulldozer to open a dirt road closed by the Forest Service in the Toiyabe Mountains.

Carver plowed through a stand of quaking aspens and across a creek containing endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout while a crowd cheered him on. When a Forest Service ranger ordered him to stop, he refused. "All it would have taken was for him to draw a weapon," he says. "Fifty people with sidearms would have drilled him."

With hoots from the crowd echoing in the cavernous hall, Carver speaks to the federal law enforcement agents he says follow him around the West. "I'm the most wanted man in the Forest Service. If I've done anything wrong, come arrest me," he said, holding his arms out as if to be handcuffed. "I want them to arrest me. But they can't do it. The Feds do not have jurisdiction. They have to prove they own the land. And they can't."

Earlier this month, the U.S. Justice Department struck back, filing suit against Nye County's claim that it "owned" all federal public lands (HCN, 3/20/95).

Carver insists the U.S. Constitution is the foundation for everything he does. He carries a copy in his shirt pocket. "Can you show me in this Constitution where the BLM, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service get their authority?" he asks, brandishing the booklet. "It's not in there. I can tell you they won't implement the Endangered Species Act in Nye County."

Carver urges county commissioners to join the grassroots revolution "spreading like wildfire" in the West by passing resolutions asserting that the states own all federal lands, which in Nevada equals 83 percent of the state. Counties have the duty to manage resources, Carver continues, and citizens have the right to bear arms. The "county control" movement is closely tied to groups that oppose any form of gun control. At their rallies, people talk of forming militias.

"This is a war we're in," says Gene Gustin, chairman of a county public-lands advisory board that is fighting federal environmental regulations in Elko, Nev. "We're choosing up sides."

Carver and his cohorts come out of a long tradition in Nevada. In the 1970s, a Nye County commissioner printed up "Kill the Pupfish" bumper stickers to protest federal protection for a tiny fish found only in Devil's Hole, a spring in southern Nevada. State Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, sparked what's called the Sagebrush Rebellion in 1979 with legislation urging the federal government to turn over public lands to the state, a quest he continues to this day. The "Wise Use Movement" emerged from a 1988 Multiple-Use Strategy Conference in Reno.