[Although clearly written from the perspective of the federal government, the following TIME cover story from October 23, 1995 offers a fairly detailed history of the action of Nye County, Nevada, which was an opening round in the War on the West, and local efforts to rein in the federal government.
UNREST IN THE WEST
Welcome to Nevada's Nye County whose angry residents are spearheading the region's charge against Washington.
by Erik Larson
SITTING ON A BALE OF BARLEY destined for his cattle, Dick Carver gets a little misty eyed as he recalls the moment the propelled him to leadership of a new rebellion now sweeping the West. Usually mild mannered and affable, the Nevada rancher and Nye County Commissioner reached a point last year when he had had enough. To him, federal intrusion into the daily life of his county had simply grown too great, so on July 4, 1994--Independence Day--he took the law into his own hands. His weapon of choice: a rusting, yellow D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer.
Carver sat astride the 22-ton machine, his dust caked face streaked with paths of recent tears. He remembers being frightened and tense as he guided the Cat towards an armed U.S. Forest Service agent holding a hand lettered sign ordering Carver to stop. The agent stumbled and wound up briefly crawling on hands and knees. But Carver kept coming. He pulled out a pocket sized copy of the U.S. Constitution, which he keeps with him always, and waved it defiantly at the agent as a crowd of about 200 people, a quarter of them armed, cheered him forward. "I was damned scared," says Carver. He was afraid someone -- maybe the agent, maybe an overzealous spectator -- would draw a gun and trigger a cascade of violence. "I told myself, 'Dick, you've got to keep going. Because if you stop, the people are going to do something and someone's going to get hurt.'"
Carver climbed aboard the Caterpillar to bulldoze open a weather-damaged road across a national forest. The hitch was, he wanted to do it without federal permission. Although plainly illegal, in Carver's mind it was an act of civil disobedience--a frontier Boston Tea Party--warranted by the tyranny he and his fellow citizens in Nye had long endured. But in this case, the purported tyrant was the U.S. government.
The incident immediately made Carver a leading voice in the so-called county-supremacy movement now gaining momentum throughout the West. It also triggered a major federal lawsuit seeking to assert once and for all the government's ownership of federal lands in Nye County, and by inference, its possession of lands that cover one third of the nation's ground. The Justice Department estimates that at least 35 counties, primarily in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California have declared authority over federal lands within their boundaries. Other estimates put the number far higher. The National Federal Lands Conference a Utah organization devoted to fostering resistance, believes more than 300 counties have claimed some degree of sovereignty over federal lands, and many more have considered the idea, including counties as far East as Maine and Florida.
The new rebelliousness has created a breeding ground for violence, especially in the austere rural settlements that bracket the Continental Divide. Pipe bombs have been found in the Gila wilderness in New Mexico. An unknown assailant fired shots at a Forest Service biologist in California. Federal agents recently arrested a man after he tried to buy explosives that he allegedly planned to use in blowing up an IRS office in Austin, Texas. And in Carson City, Nevada last August, a bomb destroyed the family van of a forest ranger while it was parked in his driveway. The explosion was the second this year in which ranger Guy Pence, who once supervised the Forest Service lands in Nye County, was the apparent target. Now no one can park in the agencies visitor spaces next to the agency's office in Sparks. Soon after the bombing senator Harry Reid, a Nevada democrat whose support is centered in Las Vegas and Reno, decried the spreading ethos of violence. "It is as if sickness has swept our country." Whatever the diagnosis maybe, nowhere are the symptoms more profound than in Nye.
Some of Dick Carver's critics have tried to link him to militias and white supremacists, but it is a mistake to dismiss him as just another extremist crackpot. The force powering Nye County rebellion are those sculpting the political and social landscape of America at large.
They just happened to have converged with their greatest intensity in the West where private and public interests clash directly and daily, typically over such visceral issues as land and water. The angry residents range from ranchers fed up with bureaucrats telling them when and where to graze their cattle to developers denied crucial water rights. "We're talking about things that go right down to the heart," says Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson, a Democrat and chairman of the Western Governors' Association. Although a moderate he confesses that he too gets fed up with federally mandated burdens like those imposed by the Safe Drinking Water Art of 1974, which requires even struggling communities to spend heavily to upgrade their water systems. "when you're a Governor," he says, "and you see what this does to your communities, you really do want to strike your desk and say, 'No more!'"
THE NEW MOVEMENT IS NO MERE rekindling of the Sagebrush rebellion -- though it does share the same goal of increasing local control over federal lands. Carver, who carries his Constitution in his shirt pocket even when bailing hay, is a product of the same antifederalist ferment that produced such widely divergent events as The Oklahoma City bombing and Ross Perot's recent proposal to launch a new political party. Nye's particular brand of rebellion is driven too by an intense feeding that the combined forces of federal law, environmental activism and urban growth may have doomed a mythic frontier lifestyle. Says Karl Hess Jr, a senior fellow of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank: "What they really want is to build walls against the future."
The Justice Department's lawsuit, filed last March in Las Vegas federal court could be decided next month, but any decision is certain to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Roger Marzulla, a former U.S. assistant Attorney General who is now defending Nye county, calls it one of the most important cases of the century in shaping the role of the Federal Government, and likens the bulldozer incident to "Rosa Parks saying, 'I'm going to sit in the front of the bus.'" Carver, even less modest calls it "the shot heard round the world, but fired with a bulldozer, not a gun."
NYE COUNTY'S LEGAL ARGUMENTS MAY BE open to challenge, but its disaffection is real and deep. The third largest county in America, Nye is an immense wedge covering more than 18,000 sq. mi., about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, but is occupied by only about 20,000 people. Plenty of elbow room -- except for the fact that the Federal Government owns 93% of the land. The bureau of land management (BLM) controls most of the valleys, the U. S. Forest Service most of the uplands. The Defense Department too claims huge chunks of the county, including the Nevada Test Site, where it detonated hundreds of nuclear devices, and the Tonopah Test Range, the darling of paranormal buffs, who know it by the nickname Dreamland and suspect that all manner of spooky events have occurred there. Even the airspace over Nye is largely restricted to military aircraft. Jet fighters scream over Carver's Big Smokey Valley, occasionally roaring past cars at sagetop altitude. A bank of nuclear-radiation sensors, still religiously monitored, stands outside the county's old courthouse In Tenopah, the county seat. The ultimate metaphor for federal intrusion, is the Energy Department's hotly controversial proposal to use Yucca Mountain, in Nye, for the nation's first high-level radioactive waste dump.
'It really is like being in a colony!' says Trish Rippie, a Tenopah real estate agent. What makes this presence particularly stifling she says, is that it runs directly counter to the independent character of the region and of the people who moved here for the low taxes, the lack of rules -- Nye has no zoning laws -- and the overall sense of freedom. "I think just about everybody here would like to see a revolution and have the Federal Government washed away," she says. "But nobody really wants a shooting war. We'd be annihilated."
Hostility towards the Federal Government suffuses Nye County to a degree that an Easterner might find hard to believe. Even though most of the county is under federal control, residents still have more breathing space than most Americans -- only one per square mile, in contrast to 3000 per square mile in California's Orange County. And despite federal regulations Nye Countians can still graze the government-owned meadows, fish the lakes and hunt the forests. But these days the climate is such that every incident, however minor seems to reinforce the case for rebellion. Jim Merlino, director of the Tonopah Convention Center, says he used to be able to get a BLM permit to cut a Christmas tree anywhere. Last year he learned he could cut his trees only from specific areas. "That's just a really little thing," he says, "But what are they going to do next time -- tell me this is the one tree I can cut?"\par In conversation with a visitor, Nye County administrator William Offitt at first tries to minimize the county's rebelliousness. "I'd say there's maybe a dozen people who are really charged up on this issue," he says. But as the conversation evolves, his own hostility becomes clear, as does that of three other county officials present in his office. They spin out stories of federal snubs and restrictions, including the BLM's refusal to allow the county to run a phone line through a roadside ditch to the county landfill without first having an archeological appraisal.
Proud of his self-sufficient heritage, Carver wastes nothing. He and his wife live in a low, raw-wood house surrounded by stacks of wood, dour sheds and fragments of ancient vehicles--a crane, a road grader and balloon-fendored pickups. On the night before a midmorning interview, he was up until 4 a.m. harvesting barley with a 1956 John Deere tractor be maintains himself. "Out here," he says, "you can't just run down to the corner to have your car repaired."
He credits another rancher with setting him on the road to rebellion. Soon after his election as county commissioner in 1988 (he got drunk one night at an Elks dance and committed himself to running), Carver paid a call on Wayne Hage, owner of The Pine Creek Ranch in Monitor Valley, a vast paradise of amber grass and cornflower blue water just over the Toquima Range from Carver's ranch. Hage had battled the Forest Service for more than a decade, charging its officials with so closely managing his access to public lands that the agency eventually drove him out of business. The Forest Service counters that Hage abused his land and repeatedly broke agency rules. The dispute, now legend in Nye, and embellished with wild tales of forest rangers with AK-47s holding Hage at gunpoint, resulted in the confiscation of 104 head of his cattle. He later filed a still pending $28 million claim against the government for driving him out of business. Hage recalls telling Carver, "If the county commissioners don't take action now, there's not going to be an economy a few years down the road."
On a day-to day basis, federal land managers wield immense power over the lives and fortunes of all ranchers who depend on public land. Contrary to popular perception nurtured by such TV series as Bonanza and Dallas, many ranches in the West and Southwest are small, barely solvent operations whose owners, like Carver, often make ends meet by moonlighting at some other occupation. Their fiscal equilibrium is easily upset by orders from federal land managers to reduce the number of cattle on their allotments or shift them to other lands. "Some of these operations are so marginal," says Neary, "if they have to leave the range or go somewhere else, they'll be out of business."
It is the bureaucratic ease with which such make-or-break decisions get made that most rankles the citizens of Nye. "I've told the Forest Service and the BLM 'Don't be coming to me to render assistance if you take people's property without due process,'" says, Sheriff Wade Lieseke Jr., who has run the county's 117-person force since 1990. A forest ranger ran take your cattle just by signing a piece of paper? A forest ranger? Give me a break."
Carver's political epiphany occurred at 3 am one day in October 1993, well after he became a commissioner. He was writing a letter protesting rangeland reform '94, then newly proposed. "It was like someone turned on a switch," Carver says. At Wayne Hage's urging, he had already studied how Catron County, New Mexico, which pioneered the county rebellion in the early 1990s, had asserted its authority over federal lands within its borders. Carver recalls asking himself, "Why am I responding to Bruce Babbitt on Rangeland Reform when in fact the state of Nevada owns the land?" He successfully lobbied his fellow commissioners to pass Nye's own version of the so-called Catron Ordinances. But Carver wanted more. Other counties had passed such resolutions but had not tried to enforce them, thus leaving them with no more punch than a letter to the editor. He wanted a fight. "We knew we had to take some action," he says.
HE FOUND HIS BATTLEFIELD. The county had petitioned the Forest Service to reopen a former stagecoach trail known as the Jefferson Canyon Road, that linked Carver's Big Smokey Valley with Hage's Monitor Valley. The Forest Service said an archeological survey had to be done. But Carver wanted to open the road right away, without the agency's approval--his way of firing a shot across the government's bow. With the blessing of his fellow commissioners, he set the event for Independence Day.
DAWN BROKE ON THE D-7 CATERPILLAR draped in an American flag. Carver had asked the county public works director to choose the most expendable of the county's earthmovers in case the Forest Service impounded it. Carver fired it up and began shaving the land along the existing right-of-way, and then stopped for a brief ceremony. A large crowd had gathered in the canyon, no mean feat considering its inaccessibility. Carver's son-in-law sang the national anthem. People showed up whom Carver had known in grade school but had not seen since. "I got so emotional," he says "there were tears running down my face."
Two forest officials arrived, David Young, a law enforcement agent, and David Grider, then the district ranger. When the crowd saw that Young was armed, some 50 people -- by Carver's count -- strapped on their own handguns. Carver saw Grider talking into his radio and wondered if other agents had massed below. "I thought this was going to be a mini-Waco," he says.\par \par A sheriffs deputy climbed aboard the Cat to address the crowd and urge everyone to be civil. But a local rancher also climbed aboard and declared that peaceful solutions were no longer enough. \par \par Carver began driving again. Young did not interfere until Carver began plowing a road bed not in the existing right-of-way. He stepped suddenly in front of the bulldozer and unfurled a sign stating STOP-- DISTURBANCE NOT AUTHORIZED. But Carver kept going, at one point brandishing his Constitution. "At no time was [Young] ever in danger," Carver insists. "He stumbled once, but I wasn't going to rum him over."
The event ended without violence. Word of the Jefferson Canyon Road affair spread quickly through the West, and immediately drew the ire of the Justice Department. The government filed its lawsuit against the county in March. Says defense attorney Marzulla, "I think they thought it was a bunch crackpots and they would squash them to the ground. What they did not plan on is that they would get a massive, substantial and competent defense of this case."
"That's nonsense," says Peter Coppelman, the Justice Department's Deputy Assistant Attorney General for environment and natural resources, who argued the case in July before an overflowing courtroom. "We picked Nye for one reason only; Nye was actively defying federal authority and creating potentially violent situations, sending letters threatening to arrest federal employees who were simply doing their jobs. We didn't pick Nye. Nye picked us."
HISTORY RUNS THROUGH THE CASE LIKE A strand of barbed wire. Briefs for both sides cite the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, through which the U.S. acquired much of the West from Mexico, as if it were signed yesterday. Distilled to its bare essence, Nye County's argument is this: Under the equal footing doctrine, new states admitted to the Union were to enter with all the\par dignity and sovereignty of the original 13. By retaining so much of Nevada's land the government gave it second-class status, in violation of the equal-footing doctrine. Says Marzulla: "The Constitution simply does not allow the Federal Government to hold in perpetuity one-third of the landmass of the U.S."
The government counters that the equal-footing doctrine was meant only to ensure that each state would have equal political standing in Washington. It argues further that Nevada, as a condition for its entry into the Union in 1864 explicitly gave up all rights to the lands within its proposed boundaries. "Legally, the county-supremacy arguments are completely bogus, but politically, they're very potent," says Justice attorney Coppelman. "What Dick Carver basically does is carry a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, and he just whips it out and waves it around when you ask what's the authority for the county-supremacy ordinances. He just says, 'Here it is.' And until we get a court to specifically reject those arguments, we're going to have people believing they have some legal validity."
And that, he says, has meant danger for federal officials throughout the West. "Whenever, you have an enforcement officer confronted by a citizen who refuses to comply with legal requirements, you have the potential for violence. So this is definitely a very volatile situation."
Other counties that have passed rebel ordinances are watching the Nye case closely. A decision favoring Nye, although subject to immediate appeal, could cause a dramatic increase in the rebellion's popularity. But a decision against the county, considered far more likely, might deepen the rebels' already profound alienation.
What matters most is the unrest that prompted the lawsuit in the first place. The message carried by Carver embodies a warning that every presidential hopeful would do well to heed. Something has come unfastened in the West, and everybody has guns. "By circling the wagons, they see its just them against the world," says the Cato Institute's Hess. He fears he says, that the owner of some marginal ranch pushed to the brink by changing rules may turn desperate. "Someone's going to carry a gun, someone's going to shoot, someone's going to bomb a Forest Service office," he says. "And God knows what's going to happen then."