Seeking to block a growing number of western U.S. counties from seizing control of federal lands, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against a Nevada county Wednesday asking a federal judge to declare that the national government is owner of the land.
The suit against Nye County, which department lawyers view as the most aggressive of the counties challenging Washington's land ownership and management authority, also sought a permanent injunction barring county officials from intimidating and interfering with federal authorities.
About 35 counties in the West have passed ordinances asserting control over national forest and other federal lands since 1991 in the so-called "county supremacy movement," and another 35 are considering such measures, Associate Atty. Gen. John Schmidt said.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Las Vegas, is being brought "to put to rest any possible doubt about the invalidity of these ordinances," Schmidt said in a telephone news conference.
Asked why the department did not bring criminal charges for certain acts--such as an alleged incident in which a Forest Service official had to jump out of the way of a bulldozer cutting a new road through federal land--Schmidt said there had been "no specific instance of criminal conduct that we feel would warrant criminal prosecution."
He noted that violation of the proposed injunction could be grounds for criminal or civil contempt action.
Schmidt, the department's third-ranking official, also said that if there is "any physical injury or threat of physical injury" against a federal worker trying to manage U.S. lands, "we would respond strongly."
Lois J. Schiffer, assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources, described the federal legal action as "firm but restrained. . . . We expect the court to quickly affirm that the federal government has sovereignty over federal lands and that federal employees must be allowed to do their jobs without interference."
Schmidt denied that the lawsuit was brought in response to GOP criticism of what it regards as excesses in environmental regulation.
"What we're responding to is the threat of illegality," he said.
The suit's timing, in part, reflects the coming grazing season when ranchers might turn their livestock loose on federal lands without permits.
The county supremacy movement began in Catron County, N.M., in 1991. But unlike Nye County and a few others, most of the counties who passed similar ordinances did little to follow up.
On Dec. 7, 1993, Nye County's Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution declaring that Nevada owns all public lands within its borders and that the counties "have a duty to manage these lands, to protect all private rights held on these lands and to preserve local customs, culture, economy and environment."
The commissioners also declared that all roads, trails and similar public travel corridors on public lands are Nye County public roads, according to the suit. Nye County encompasses a huge area of south-central Nevada, including a small part of Death Valley National Monument.
In June, the county commissioners asserted that a washed-out canyon road within the Toiyaba National Forest in central Nevada was a county public road that would be reopened and warned that federal employees found working on the road would be operating outside their jurisdiction.
On July 4, county Commissioner Richard Carver used a bulldozer to reopen the national forest road and allegedly defied two U.S. Forest Service officials by veering off the old road and bulldozing a new one, the suit contended.
One of the federal officials stood in front of the bulldozer holding a sign demanding that Carver stop violating the law, the suit said, but Carver allegedly persisted, forcing the official to jump out of the way.
The lawsuit cited Nevada's 1864 constitutional convention, which accepted Congress' invitation to become a state and said its people agreed "that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States."
The suit cited the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which preempts Nevada laws.