Nevada Range War Pits U.S., Nye County : Sovereignty: Tensions rise in ongoing challenge to federal authority over land.


Rangers who patrol the Toiyabe National Forest, a million of the most isolated acres in the country, are now instructed to travel in pairs, stay in radio contact and avoid confrontation at all costs. They carry wallet-sized cards with phone numbers to call in case of arrest.

Their fear is not of gun-toting rustlers but of elected officials in Nevada’s Nye County, the heartland of the county supremacy movement that has become the rallying point in the West for critics of federal control of public lands.

Nye County politicians have passed resolutions declaring that all federal land here--93% of the county’s territory--is under local control, that roads on federal land are county property and that all citizens have the right to own whatever firearms they please.


Federal employees have been threatened with arrest for doing their jobs, and one particularly flamboyant county commissioner--who has become a national point man for the home-rule movement--twice used a bulldozer to reopen national forest roads.

“As this escalates, a physical confrontation is a possibility.” said Ted Angle, district manager of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which also recently warned its officers to be on alert. “We need to prepare ourselves.”


Officials in hammer-shaped Nye County say they are trying to pound a message home to federal bureaucrats here and in Washington 2,000 miles away: There is no such thing as a national forest, and local government is the one true government.

The county supremacy ideology has picked up steam in recent months as the nation’s unrest over federal regulations dovetailed with more than a century of ornery independence in the West.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Nye County last month, hoping to rein in this new incarnation of the Sagebrush Rebellion, but many remain unswayed here amid the greasewood and Indian rice grass of central Nevada.

“The message in America that people are hungry to hear is how an elected official has stood up to protect people’s property rights,” says Richard Carver, the Nye County commissioner and movement firebrand who is just back from two weeks of stumping in Washington state. “Our goal is to bring the power of government back to the people.”


Carver hasn’t been home much in the 17 months since Nye County passed its first two so-called “Son of Sage” resolutions written by the commissioner and sometime rancher from isolated Round Mountain. On Friday he is to lead a rally on the steps of the Fresno federal building and he anticipates a good reception.

In March, Fresno County supervisors passed a resolution that declares solidarity with the rebellious rhetoric sweeping the rural West, saying they want “to protect home rule and economic stability of the county of Fresno and private property rights of its citizens from adverse actions by federal and state agencies.”

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 35 counties have passed anti-federal ordinances or resolutions since the movement erupted in Catron County, N.M., in the late 1980s and that another 35 counties are considering it. Carver, who has carried the county-rights banner since 1993, puts the number near 300, saying a tenth of them are in California.

Even in Day County, S.D., a region that does not profess to belong to the county rights movement, some landowners and local officials are behaving like card-carrying members of Sagebrush II.

At the end of March, county officials threw up a barricade to prevent federal authorities from building an elevated road that would serve as a dam to protect a refuge for migratory waterfowl near Waubay Lake. The dam, they said, would worsen flooding that already afflicted lakeside property owners--one of whom threatened to bomb the dam himself.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded by getting an injunction in federal court to bring the barricades down. At the same time, said Dick Gilbert, refuge manager for the Waubay National Wildlife Refuge, the federal government decided not to pursue its dam-building efforts.

The refuge is currently under water, but a tentative peace reigns, which is more than can be said for Nye County. “I’m not sure I’d want to be there ,” Gilbert said of the hot seat of the county rights movement.

Seven of Nevada’s 17 counties have passed some sort of home-rule resolution or ordinance proclaiming the sovereignty of county government over federal laws such as grazing regulations and environmental rules.

Nevada has long been a bastion of home-rule activity, starting in the late 1970s when the state Legislature demanded control of 50 million acres of federal land and kicked off what became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion.

The movement subsided when Ronald Reagan was elected President, James Watt was appointed secretary of the interior and western rebels began to have their wishes granted by a sympathetic Republican Administration. It was reborn with Clinton Administration efforts to raise grazing fees and reform mining laws.


The home-rule movement has gained steam since the November elections swept a raft of anti-regulation legislators into Washington. And since Richard Carver got on a bulldozer last Independence Day and reopened a 600-foot-long stretch of primitive road that had been closed by the Forest Service several years ago in remote Jefferson Canyon.

In the process, Carver used the bulldozer to chase off two Forest Service agents. Carver said he was only carrying out the Nye County resolution he had written several months earlier.

Unlike Catron County, N.M., which passed ordinances in 1991 saying that federal employees were required to work with the county when carrying out land-use and environmental regulations, Carver’s philosophy is that federal employees have no jurisdiction at all in Nye County.

Carver’s inspiration is Wayne Hage, a local rancher and author. His spread outside of Tonopah is so remote it receives no mail and no television or radio signals and has no phone. Since 1978, when he moved here from California to run 2,000 cattle on 795,000 acres of federal land, he has been in constant battle with the government.

The Forest Service contends that parts of Hage’s allotment were seriously overgrazed and that his cattle needed to be moved. Agents also said he illegally cleared brush and threatened federal employees. The government rounded up more than 100 head of his cattle and later auctioned them off.

Hage says the feds wanted to put him out of business and finally succeeded when he sold the rest of his herd in 1991. He has a $28.4-million claim against the government pending in federal court. While he questions the legal underpinnings of the Nye County resolution, he is sympathetic. And his case has served as a lightning rod for anti-federal feeling.

“This case has opened the eyes of the general public to just what an ugly monster we’re dealing with in the maze of federal agencies and the environmental movement,” says Hage.

Since the Nye County resolution passed in December, 1993, correspondence between the county or local ranchers and the BLM regarding range management and changes in grazing permits contain some version of the admonition: “Should any BLM personnel appear on the property in question attempting to enforce these regulations, proper legal action will be taken.”

On March 8, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit asking a judge to declare that the U.S. government is owner of Nye County public land and seeking an injunction to end intimidation of federal authorities.

Jim Nelson, supervisor of the Toiyabe and Humboldt national forests, says he increasingly fears for his employees’ safety--particularly since bombs went off last week damaging the agency’s Carson City office.

There are no suspects in the bombings, and authorities are not linking them to the movement. But the incidents brought new urgency to a series of safety meetings set for Nevada’s Forest Service workers.

“Our basic response is no comment,” Nelson said of the bombings. “Mine is they can blow all our facilities up but we’ll continue to do our job. We have to.”


County Conflict

Nye County, Nev., is the heart of the county supremacy movement, which is spreading fast throughout the West. The movement claims there is no such thing as federal land. But Nye--the biggest county in Nevada--is 93% federally owned, including Bureau of Land Management resource areas, not shown.