Nevada’s ugly tug-of-war

A visit to the heart of the Sagebrush Rebellion


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 Valley.

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for this part of Nevada, the land, the people, and what they're going through.

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 here.

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 Management 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.

Elko 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 cowboys.

"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 year.

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 court.

"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 pipe.

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.

Ranchers 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.

Counterpoised gainst 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 edge

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.

But 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 semi-automatic rifle.

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 Waco.

"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 work for."

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 Mountains.

The Forest Service advises employees to travel in pairs whenever possible. Atchley usually travels alone. But he is careful.

"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."

Atchley says 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 Wells.

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 away.

"Our district motto is, you can't be too paranoid," Doug concludes with a rueful laugh.

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 land.

"No, you probably shouldn't, because they might lynch you," Derrick says the teacher replied.

Derrick says he didn't feel threatened. "I knew he was out of line." The teacher was eventually suspended.

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 warning.

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 80.

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 anti-federal comments.

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."

But there are also quieter voices here.

Elaine 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 club.

"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."

George Yan, 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 politics.

"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 field

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.

Kevin 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 fire.

"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 bureaucratic.

"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."

Zaga is 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."

Atchley is taken aback. "That offends me to liken us to that," he says.

"I understand," says Zaga.

For a moment, they are both quiet.

Then Zaga says, "That bothers me that you're leaving."

"I understand," says Atchley. "We got along good."

Although 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 landscape.

"You have poa bulbosa. Is that desirable?" Atchley asks the rancher.

"I didn't go to college," Zaga says, sitting in the shade of his pickup cab. "Grab a handful."

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 control

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.

Inside, 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 things."

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 schedules.

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.

On another 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 rump.

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 fun."

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 and there."

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."

A way home

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 move soon.

Jon Christensen is Great Basin regional editor for High Country News, based in Carson City, Nevada.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- 'The hate in our country is reminiscent of Nazi Germany'

- 'As long as people are breaking the law ...'

- Nevada's most rebellious

- 'All of us feel we don't have ...'

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