Tension between ranchers and federal officials is dangerously high in Nevada

Gerald "Jerry" Smith grew up in Nevada and went to work for the Bureau of Land Management right after college. As a local, he figured he was uniquely suited to work with the ranchers who have long resented the federal government's role in land management here.

It didn't quite work out that way.

Now retired from a job as district manager for the BLM, Smith knows all about the tensions that have long defined relations between ranchers in the rural West and the federal government, which manages much of the region's land. Those tensions have boiled over in recent days at a wildlife refuge in Oregon and are at a perpetual simmer here.

Now it is Smith's successor as district manager, Doug Furtado, who has become the enemy for many people in the region.

Although there have been no violence or threats here, the risk is real. Federal employees in Nevada have been attacked in the past over land-use disputes — shot at, their offices and cars bombed.

"We got to live in this community," said Smith, who supervised, trained and still hunts with Furtado in this community where many carry concealed handguns. "All these issues, none of them are worth dying over. I worry about that — so does Doug."

Just off the interstate leading into this northern Nevada town of about 3,600 ringed by the snow-capped peaks of the Shoshone and Sheep Creek ranges, protesting ranchers pitched their "Cowboy Grass Camp" on a muddy roadside across from the gray stucco ranch house that serves as the BLM's district office.

Two white tepees flapped in the wind last week beside a canvas tent sometimes occupied by the ranchers, who tend their cattle on nearby spreads passed down through generations. They tacked hand-lettered red, white and blue signs to a nearby metal ranch gate urging drivers to "Support ranchers," "Protect grazing, water rights" and "Honk to impeach Furtado!"

"I lay on it when I go by," said rancher Eddyann Filippini, 59. "You do what you got to do when the devil's got the sword to your throat."

Furtado, district manager for the last five years, listens to the honking from inside his office. He is no longer allowed to speak publicly and was recently forced to back off on drought-driven grazing restrictions he imposed in 2013 and cede control of negotiations with ranchers to the state director.

Filippini and other ranchers have sued, staged a "pony express" protest ride on horseback to Washington, D.C., and petitioned for Furtado's ouster. Last spring, they flouted Furtado's order, set their cattle loose on the public range, and if the agency can't broker an agreement soon, they're poised to do it again.

"There's no more partnership," Filippini said. "Now it's them or us."

That's what concerns Furtado and his defenders.

The hills of northern Nevada have long seethed with discontent against the federal government. In the 1970s, local ranchers helped launch the Sagebrush Rebellion, a rural revolt that lasted, in various iterations, for decades as ranchers and lawmakers bucked new federal laws concerning the use of public lands, demanding more local control.

By the 1990s, they had won increasing support and notoriety. Sisters Mary and Carrie Dann gained national attention for defying federal grazing limits on pastures to the south of Battle Mountain, contending the land belonged to their Western Shoshone tribe. On July 4, 1994, a crowd cheered as Richard Carver, a county commissioner from southern Nevada, took a bulldozer to a Forest Service road, later threatening to arrest a federal ranger who tried to stop him.

Smith recalls how Carver used to carry miniature copies of the Constitution in his pocket, just like some of the ranchers holed up in Oregon do, expounding on state's rights.

Smith, 65, graduated from the University of Nevada in Reno and joined the BLM in a succession of rural outposts — Winnemucca, Ely and finally Battle Mountain, where he was district manager for 15 years.

As a local, he thought he could make inroads with hard-core rebels like the Dann sisters, who faced the loss of their grazing permits and hefty fines for defying federal orders.

"I spent the first year I was in Battle Mountain going to meetings with them. We were trying to get them in a peaceful resolution to pay their fees and get their permits and continue ranching," Smith said.

But some, including the Danns, still resisted.

"There's a small percentage of ranchers that can't stand being told what to do," he said.

As the Western drought worsened in recent years, so did the ranchers' unrest. In 2014, rancher Cliven Bundy and supporters staged an armed standoff in southeastern Nevada. Instead of impounding Bundy's cattle, the bureau backed down. Now two of Bundy's sons have become leaders of the armed occupiers in Oregon, and the effect has spread to Battle Mountain.

"Everybody felt a little more empowered when the BLM didn't impound Cliven Bundy," Smith said.

John Ruhs, the Bureau of Land Management's state director, took over negotiations with the Battle Mountain ranchers last summer. Ruhs — a former Marine who dresses like a rancher in cowboy boots, wool vest, jeans and a forked beard — brokered a temporary agreement that allowed the families to continue grazing.

"I don't feel BLM backed down," Ruhs said as he sat in his Reno office within view of a Black Angus herd. "We are trying to make decisions where it is more of a collaborative process.... In our job now, we have to be careful we put some warmth back into that, some humanity. Because we got smacked in the face on some of this."

Filippini, the local rancher, said she has worked well with Ruhs.

"I respect John very much. But I can't say that's true of the local office," she said, laughing bitterly. "There's zero trust; there's zero integrity. It's like they're the bullies on the block."

She and other ranchers are scheduled to meet with an agency team next month at the Battle Mountain Civic Center, where a sign reads, "Are you tough enough?"

If they can't reach an agreement, Filippini intends to turn her cattle out as scheduled March 1.

"Until we go back to being partners, that's the way it's going to be," she said. "We will stand and fight for our property."

Last week, Smith was out hunting speckled chukar partridges in Whirlwind Valley outside Battle Mountain. He noted with dismay invasive plants left behind by overgrazing: tumbleweed, Russian thistle, cheatgrass.

"The range has just deteriorated," he said. "It's burned. For miles around it's grazed down to nothing. You'd stand out there and just see white snow because there's nothing's going to stick up."

He wishes ranchers would see the benefit of limited grazing, which will help the grasses recover and sustain their herd in the long run.

"I just don't see it ending that way here," he said. "The people who abuse the public lands the worst are the ones who will fight the hardest."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 15, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "High tension in Nevada's high desert - `Zero trust' exists between ranchers and federal officials" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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