Hold It! This Land Is My Land! : Led by Commissioner Dick Carver, Nevada’s Nye County Is Now Ground Zero in the West’s War Against the U.S. Government
Dick Carver stood just outside Room 300 at the U.S. District Courthouse in Las Vegas, Nev., admiring the travertine marble walls. Nervously he tugged at his Wranglers and then removed his straw cowboy hat. You could see that the July heat--or maybe it was the pressure--was causing him to sweat. John Wayne Howard, his attorney, turned to him and whispered a private joke into Carver’s sunburned ear. They chuckled. But the laugh wasn’t from down deep. It came out like a dry cough.
Carver--who has thick, calloused hands, sparkling blue eyes, a prosperous gut and a passing resemblance to Mickey Rooney--licked his lips. Three hundred supporters stood behind him and gave a whispered cheer. “Good luck, Dick!” “Go get ‘em, Carver!” The voices hummed an encouraging ode for nearly a minute, and he twisted and twitched, not knowing where to look. “I’m nervous-- Whoa !--I don’t want to lose,” he stammered. “I can’t lose.”
A few hours earlier, at 9 in the morning, Carver had been flush with confidence. He and his ranching buddies, who had driven from Nye County, just 200 miles north of Las Vegas, were relaxing in a dingy casino lounge called the Turf Club. The air conditioners went pushhhhh and cooled them from the 115-degree heat outside.
The conversation turned to whiskey.
“We’ll party tonight,” said one friend, taking off his cowboy hat and scratching his freshly barbered hair. “I’ll buy a round a whiskey ‘cause we’re gonna win! 99.99%!”
“We’re not gonna give up as long as there’s a drop of blood in us!” hooted Carver.
But now, about 1 p.m., Dick Carver--Nye County Commissioner, tribune of the county supremacy movement and nemesis to the federal government--took a deep breath and, trying to look assured, walked into the courtroom with his wife, Midge, by his side. He and his buddies and the 300 people cheering him were on a mission, he said, “to end apartheid in the West.”
Dick Carver was in court because the federal government is suing Nye County. In 1993, Carver had persuaded his fellow commissioners to pass resolutions 93-48 and 93-49, which demanded ownership and usurped control of “all public lands” within Nye’s borders. In effect, Nye County officials claimed that they had the right to arrest federal agents for “trespassing” if they were on National Forest Service land or, for that matter, on a U.S. interstate. As many as 35 other counties in the West, most notably Catron County, N.M., have passed similarly militant legislation. But when Carver, on July 4, 1994, took a rusty D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer and plowed open a road that the National Forest Service had declared closed, he became a beacon for the county supremacy movement. Carver says he was trying to prove a point, “to fire a shot heard ‘round the world.”
Carver and his supporters claim that the federal government’s ownership of 93% of the land in Nye County is illegal. The third-largest county in the country, Nye is 18,064 square miles--about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire--of arid scrub and timber whose population of 20,000 is heavily dependent on ranching and mining on National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands. Since the end of World War II, Nye has been angry with the federal government for its intrusive presence. The county is the home of the Nuclear Test Site, where more than 900 nuclear blasts have gone off since 1951. It also has Nellis Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range within its borders; soldiers from Nellis run maneuvers with tanks and regularly stage mock battles, and Nellis pilots fly over in jets, creating omnipresent sonic booms. What’s more, Congress recently declared Nye’s Yucca Mountain as the first disposal site for the country’s radioactive waste.
Carver’s notoriety increased last spring when the Justice Department sued Nye County. Attorneys there make no secret that the bulldozing incident is the principal reason they have targeted Nye. “We’re working on county supremacy cases across the West,” says Caroline M. Zander, a Department of Justice attorney, “but Nye County is our most high-profile and serious case. Carver really challenged us to a fight.”
When informed about the lawsuit, Carver responded with characteristic bravado. “Those jackasses in Washington,” he told reporters, “are going to have the surprise of their life.”
It would be easy to paint Carver, 50, as a common kook or even as a foot soldier in the militia movement. But he’s not so easy to pigeonhole. He doesn’t brandish guns. He is not holed up in a cult. He is proud that his ancestors raised George Washington Carver, the great African American scientist and leader. He ran for commissioner as a Democrat, talks about how badly society treats the poor, and he says things should be changed through the courts and Congress. But there is something--what is it?--that creates mixed emotions about Carver. Was it the “48 Hours” TV appearance in which he claimed there are microchips in $100 bills? Was it his concern about being followed by mysterious government agents? Or was it his speech to a conference linked with the Christian Identity, a group that mixes fundamentalist theology with white supremacist dogma? (Carver says the speech was a “big mistake.”)
When Carver sat down in the front row of Chief Judge Lloyd D. George’s courtroom, he was, he would later admit, not nearly as confident as he made out. For luck--or to make sure he didn’t lose it--he tapped his shirt pocket, which held a miniature copy of the U.S. Constitution. He likes to tell everyone he never goes anywhere without it. So when the courtroom filled, Carver desperately wanted vindication for himself and the movement, both of which he believes are misunderstood. We’re standing up to the Feds, he told himself: “Those men who know nothing about me and my land manage my life like Dictatorial Bureaucrats from afar--from an office in Washington, D.C., where they don’t know how the green brush grows in May and the night hawks swoop down through my fields devouring mosquitoes. I’m here to stop them because I am a citizen and I live by the Constitution and nothing else. I hope the great Americans in the audience stay calm. I am scared they will cause trouble.”
Carver has reasons to be concerned. Six months earlier, someone had hurled a rock through a truck windshield at the Bureau of Land Management office in Tonopah, in central west Nye County. Someone threw a satchel full of explosives onto the roof of the Reno BLM office on Halloween night, 1994. The blast blew a 15-foot hole through the building and was heard for miles. No one was hurt. A bomb blew out four windows in the Carson City, Nev., office of the Toiyabe National Forest on March 30, the headquarters for Forest Service Ranger Guy Pence, who happened to have worked in Nye County in the mid-1980s. And on Aug. 4, 1995, a bomb exploded under a van at Pence’s home, narrowly missing his wife and two of his daughters.
Although investigators have not directly tied those incidents to the county supremacy movement--Carver denounces acts of violence--they have raised the stakes of the trial. No one realizes this more than the two men sitting to Carver’s right: John Wayne Howard, the principal legal advocate for Nye County, and Roger J. Marzulla, the former head of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan. In contrast to Carver’s cowboy duds, they wear somber suits and monogrammed shirts. “The federal government is inherently despotic,” says Howard. “The federal government owns the land, and the local government has no say out here. It’s unconstitutional.”
Facing Marzulla and Howard are Peter Coppelman and four other federal attorneys. Short-haired and intense, Coppelman is the Department of Justice’s deputy assistant attorney general. He worked on the spotted owl case for the federal government and was the legal counsel for the Wilderness Society for nine years. He says Nye is asking the court to “redraw the map of the United States and to rewrite 150 years of American history. Under Nye’s theory, there would be almost no national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and wilderness areas.”
Carver rises when Judge George strides into the courtroom. A Reagan appointee, George, 65, is a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and a graduate of Brigham Young University and UC Berkeley. He shuffles his notes and looks up from the bench. He appears to be pleasantly shocked by the crowd behind Carver, who feels that George radiates “justice.” George, Carver is convinced, will help rescue Nye from “tyranny.”
Within an hour, maybe two--it depends on what the person was doing July 4th, 1994--everyone in Nye had heard about it. Two hundred lucky people had even witnessed it.
The calls started about 5 in the afternoon. “Ted, did you hear?” “Ted, you know what happened?” “Did you hear that they almost killed him!” “There were men aiming shotguns, Ted . . . Hey, Ted, you there, Ted?”
After a while, Ted Angle stopped answering the phone. He just sat in his house in Tonopah, Nev., thinking about what would happen next. He had been warned to stay away from the July 4th get-together. And he did. His wife, Sharron, had been worried all week. She kept hearing at school board meetings and at church groups about the potential for armed conflict.
The day before, on Sunday, the Angles had attended the First Baptist Church, a peach-colored building that overlooks Tonopah, a dusty town of 3,500. A mustachioed man with an ambling stride, Angle wore a new pair of cowboy boots to the service. They pinched his feet. But he didn’t complain. Angle, a 24-year veteran of the Bureau of Land Management, prides himself on “being a Westerner.” Which, for him, means weathering pain without complaint. Bowing his head and clasping his hands, he sank his head between his brown polyester Wranglers and prayed that nothing would happen--and that if something did, no one would get hurt.
And here it was on Monday afternoon, two hours after the end of the Independence Day cookout, and his prayers had been partially answered. A sense of relief--"Thank God, no one was murdered!"--poured over him. But he was darn mad about what had happened in Jefferson Canyon. Even though it was a Forest Service employee who had been threatened, Angle understood that Carver’s shenanigans were aimed at him as well. As the area manager in the Tonopah Resource Area in Nye County for the BLM, Angle enforces federal land-use policy, including mining and grazing privileges. Ranchers say that he is from the “Big City,” by which they mean Reno; they say he’s “smart mouthed” and “rank,” a term for particularly nasty bulls. Ranchers have been known to intimidate his workers by following them into restaurants and staring them down while they eat; or stalking them in their trucks. “It can get crazy out there,” says Angle, with typical reserve.
When Dick Carver presented the land resolutions on Dec. 7, 1993, four Nye County Commissioners supported him. The fifth commissioner, Joe Maslach, raised some concern about Resolution 93-48, which recognized that the state of Nevada owns all public lands within the borders of the state. “If the state owns the land,” asked Maslach, “who controls the state?” Maslach abstained from the vote. As a political statement, the resolution made a minor ripple in the county. Most residents didn’t think anything would really happen because similar resolutions had been passed in other counties to little effect. So, Carver knew he had to make a statement.
The Jefferson Canyon incident could hardly have been more explicit.
Jefferson Canyon, 80 miles north of Tonopah, sits in the geographic center of the state and in the middle of the 6.1 million acres that Angle regulates. The canyon carves its way into 11,949-foot-high Mt. Jefferson. Back in July, 1874, the canyon boasted 100 houses, two stores, seven saloons, one butcher shop, one brewery, one barbershop, one lumberyard, three restaurants, two stables, one blacksmith shop and two bakeries--all built in six months. Three months later, the city claimed 185 registered voters: most of the men were silver miners. Like many mining towns, Jefferson went bust, and by September, 1875, the place was almost empty. No one lives in Jefferson anymore, but the remnants of the town remain.
With its juniper trees, willows and greensward next to the river, Jefferson is a favorite spot for picnics. For 30 years, Nye County residents have driven their four-wheelers into the canyon for the annual 4th of July fest. Throughout the afternoon, women cook local specialties such as venison, rabbit, rainbow trout. Kids get in water fights and men get in fistfights. It’s a hazy, drunken, messy, wet, tiring, bloody, relaxing day. But 1994’s picnic was the most unforgettable.
With a couple hundred people shouting support, some carrying guns, Dick Carver climbed aboard a bulldozer and punched open a long-closed road in the Toiyabe National Forest. The Forest Service had closed the area to eliminate overgrazing. To Carver and the crowd cheering him on, though, the no trespassing sign by the road symbolized not just unwarranted federal regulation, but unwanted federal presence. They wanted to take the land back and intimidate the federal workers. Backpedaling, and just keeping clear of the advancing bulldozer’s blade, Dave Young, a hapless agent with the U.S. National Forest Service retreated up the canyon, still holding a sign that informed Carver that he was trespassing.
As Carver sat aboard the Cat, he worried--he says--that someone would kill Young, and he prayed that the man wouldn’t draw a gun on him. “My friends would have drilled him,” he says now. “I didn’t want that.”
Many Nevada politicians, including Democratic Gov. Bob Miller, denounced Carver’s action. But in Nye County Carver was a hero.
When Carver drives around Nye, he says he feels needed. Even this year, a non-election year, innumerable posters declare CARVER FOR COMMISSIONER. He remembers the November, 1992 election with pride. He won by a 2-1 margin.
With his sweaty face and his jaws chomping on gum, Carver doesn’t seem inspirational. Most of his learning came from his dad. He loved his daddy. When he was a kid, just like a young pup, tongue aloll, the young Carver would follow him. He liked the old man’s dusty smell, greasy clothing, laughter and his stories of cowboys and Indians. And he got chicken skin when his father talked about the Carver family.
In 1850, the Carvers drove 800 head of cattle from Salt Lake City to Placerville, Calif., to feed Gold Rush miners. Little Dick Carver liked it when his dad told him about the Carvers being the first non-Indians to graze cattle in what is now Yosemite National Park. He beamed when his dad told him that his ancestors--Moses and Susan Carver--raised George Washington Carver.
Carver was 11 when his dad died. “I just went into a cocoon and started working,” he says. “I just rode horses on the range. Never stopped. Seven days a week I worked. Tried to forget my dad.” Carver now owns 850 acres and runs 90 head of cattle in the remote Big Smoky Valley. (John C. Fremont, the Western explorer, in 1845 so named the valley because of a blue haze resembling smoke that hangs over the area.) He lives with his wife in a house that consists of two trailers and a dining -room extension made of Douglas Fir plywood. When he drives his Chevrolet Custom Deluxe--his dog Bruiser beside him--past Midge’s garden and toward his fields, he sees the land he grew up on. He talks about the people who live in Nye and say he feels lucky for what he has. Surrounding him are button sage plants with their gray-brown leaves and woolly pubescence. “I’ve been here all my life and we just want the power in our hands because people should control their destiny.”
What would his daddy have said about the trial? After he died, Carver promised that he would honor the old man’s memory. What better way than preserving the independence of the Cowboy Way?
The hour advances toward 4 o’clock. Skook Berg cradles his brimming teacup with both hands. He clenches the cup tighter. Tighter. His fingers change from pink to a chalky white. Then it starts.
The tobacco-colored liquid in his cup ripples. During the first few seconds, the ripples look as if a sugar cube was lowered into his tea. Tiny ripples. But after five seconds, the tea appears to be an uncontrollable tsunami. Deep troughs.
Skook’s hands shake. Arleen Berg, Skook’s wife, tries to ignore the trembling books and china and the tea droplets cascading onto Skook’s khaki pants. The house shakes. The rumbling is so violent that Arleen’s wheelchair rocks back and forth. With her emaciated body, she sits in her chair looking frighteningly fragile. They keep talking about their granddaughter. A perfectly normal conversation. “She’s such a good kid, right, Skook?” “Yeah, she’s a great kid.”
Didn’t they feel the earth move? Apparently not.
Finally, after about six seconds, the house is motionless once again. Skook places his half-empty cup on an end table and, with a napkin, dabs at his pants. “It’s 4 o’clock,” he says, not even bothering to look at a timepiece. Arleen nods. They exchange a glance for probably the eight-zillionth time.
A mine explosives team has detonated dynamite a half-mile from where they live in Round Mountain, Nev., 60 miles north of Tonopah, and the blast sent the wavy vibration. The daily blast is just another reminder to the Bergs that Echo Bay Mines Ltd. is threatening to destroy their home. Outside, caramel-colored grit rains down on their home like a furious cloudburst. As the wind passes, the sagebrush flutters. Blackbirds fly by, the tips of their wings looking as if they had been dipped in ketchup.
Mining officials once asked Skook how much money it would take for him to leave. “I told them, ‘I can’t be bought. There’s not enough gold in that hill to get me to leave.’ ”
The Bergs live in a house built 80 years ago by Skook’s father. They’ve farmed, ranched, built businesses, battled sickness and raised five children in Round Mountain. The cellar is made from mud and 22,000 old liquor bottles. The walls are a double row of bottles with the bottoms facing outward. The dead airspace in each bottle provides insulation, keeping the fruits and vegetables in the cellar cool. They own a piano, and their bookshelves are lined with hard-covered “Harvard Classics” of Socrates, Plato and such. The house smells of freshly baked bread and wood polish.
Skook, 72, has a shock of white, silken hair. He plays classical and boogie-woogie on the piano for Arleen, 65. Ten years ago, she stepped on her nightgown and tumbled down a staircase and broke her neck. She has no use of her legs and her skin has the texture of a green olive. Arleen’s hands are gnarled, making it difficult to imagine her riding horses and bailing hay as she once did. Still, her eyes, filtered by gray-tinted glasses, reveal her feistiness. As Skook talks about the mine, she punctuates his sentences with sudden fillips: “They’re cowards !” Her eyes gleam with hatred.
The mine? “No, no, no!” she says. “Worse than the mine. Them .” When she talks about the mysterious “them,” an exuberance enters her. Exuberance and rage.
For many citizens of Nye County, “them” is urban recreationalists, huge corporations and Washington D.C. politicians. It’s Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who “sold them out.” It’s the Sierra Club, which “cares more about animals than people.” It’s the U.S. government that’s “betraying” them in varied and sullied ways. It’s a way of life that’s being taken away as more and more people migrate to the the West and urban areas, like Vegas and Reno, sprawl out.
“There’s something striking and heroic about folks working the land,” says Patricia Nelson Limerick, a professor of history at the University of Colorado. “The West has seen waves of conquerors. Native Americans, Conquistadors, cowboys and, now, mountain bikes.”
For the Bergs, “them” is the Bureau of Land Management.
Less than a mile from their house is one of the largest open pit gold mines in North America, owned and operated by the Canadian-owned Echo Bay Ltd. A fleet of 190-ton trucks roar 24 hours-a-day, carrying ore to a leach pad. At the pad, the rocks soak in sodium cyanide and then are stripped for gold. Under an 1872 law, anyone can stake a mining claim for a few dollars.
William H. Berg, Skook’s father, came to Round Mountain with his three brothers in 1906. They had spent seven years searching for gold in the Yukon (which is where he stumbled upon his son’s name: Skook is short for “Skookum,” an Eskimo word for good). According to Skook, Will bought a few acres of land from the Round Mountain Mining Co.,and though the mine soon left, Bergs have lived there ever since, building up the hamlet of Round Mountain.
In 1970, the Copper Range Co. started exploring its claims at the mine. Ten years later, by a title action, Copper Range reaffirmed its position as owner of the patented claims and holder of unpatented claims in the Round Mountain area. That means it owned the mining rights to the land of Round Mountain. Then in 1985, Copper Range sold out to Echo Bay. Soon, there were 1,000 people working at the mine, and the explosions forced out the 100 residents or so of Round Mountain. Except for the Bergs.
But as the mine crept toward their town, threatening to dump tailings onto their house, the Bergs decided to stop it. They were convinced they had an easy case. They were sure they owned the land. William Berg had practically built the town. Because Round Mountain was under the BLM’s jurisdiction, the Bergs asked the agency to do something. The BLM report was bureaucratically curt: “Townspeople argue that [the mining company’s] unpatented claims are not on ‘vacant’ land as required by the mining law. However, it has been explained to them that the land is indeed ‘vacant’ in that it is ‘unappropriated,’ as its use for a townsite has never been authorized.”
The Bergs had no rights to the land.
The town had never been incorporated. The BLM told them that Round Mountain didn’t exist. The BLM told the Bergs they had no case. It gave their town away. It gave the mining rights to Echo Bay Ltd. “I feel bad,” says Ted Angle, who couldn’t override the 1872 Mining Law, “but I can’t do anything about it.”
“They’ve taken away our land,” says Arleen. “It’s them, the Washington bureaucrats. They don’t understand us.”
After Dick Carver heard the Bergs’ story, he decided to “do something.” And so when he ran for commissioner in 1988 and started making his stump speeches at the local rodeo and when he came to the Bergs’ house, wanting their vote--desperately seeking it--he struck a chord.
“Common sense says the town shouldn’t be destroyed for a mining claim. The Bergs have historical and emotional rights to their house. The federal government claims ownership of one-third of the nation’s land! If the reality of state ownership can be implemented, our God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be in much less danger from violations by the federal government!”
Carver portrayed the BLM as a bunch of Eastern bureaucrats. His speeches didn’t always portray reality--most of the people who worked for the BLM were Westerners, for instance--but he did capture something bigger: frustration. When the Bergs talked to Ted Angle, he just threw up his hands. Dick Carver, though, listened to their problems and did something. He got those resolutions passed. He opened that darn road.
And the federal government’s lawsuit against Nye gives the Bergs hope. If Nye wins and the land is shifted into local hands, the mining law could be abolished. The town could be saved.
So that is why Ted Angle waves. He waves at a highway crewman, a trucker, another highway workman and a driver in a pickup. He waves at everyone. In the general absence of kindness around these parts, he is trying to fill the void. He is on a Nice Crusade.
“Our mission is to be hated, you know?” he says, meaning the government. “So I like being friendly.” He winks, steps on the gas and the Ford Bronco lurches to 70 m.p.h. and he looks through the moth-splattered windshield at the Amargosa Valley. “Pretty.” His voice fills with the twangy inflection of his native Nevada. “Awful pretty.” He smiles. He smiles a lot. Sometimes it seems as if its sole purpose is to cover up his anxiety.
Ted Angle wears Wranglers, a dust-covered blue golf shirt, hiking boots and a cowboy hat. The day before was his 46th birthday, and the hat was a present. As the area manager for the Bureau of Land Management, Angle, along with 20 employees, oversees 6.1 million acres of mostly high desert. He has an annual budget of about $750,000. He is known as a “critter lover,” an “enemy to ranching,” a “liar” and an “agent for the Sierra Club.” People blame Angle for creating the tension in Nye County. Ranchers say he is putting them out of business with “his” environmental policies.
The dust bowl brought on the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, which mandated a federal regulatory program to “stop injury to the public grazing lands by preventing overgrazing and soil deterioration.” It’s the BLM’s mandate to carry out this task, and since its formation in 1946 to the 1990s, the agency and ranchers had an amicable relationship. Ranchers would file for a grazing permit and they would get it at a dirt-cheap price.
But last year, Interior Secretary Babbitt, a former rancher himself, introduced regulations called Rangeland Reform which, among other things, limited overgrazing; ranchers don’t just have permits handed over to them anymore, and the officials who often turn them down are field agents from the BLM.
Angle waves again at someone passing by, but soon the Nice Crusade turns serious. He crunches a Sam’s Choice Cola can in his hand and puts it into the cardboard box next to him. The box contains a pair of pliers, a screwdriver, a hand broom, a Nevada map, a greasy rag, a bottle of Windex and a tuna fish sandwich. He looks ahead, but his mind turns backward. “You know something?” he asks. “I understand them. I understand why they’re mad and how things eat up inside of you, and it makes me feel sad because I was like that once. Didn’t listen to other people. Didn’t want to compromise. Didn’t want to work with people.”
When Angle was a boy in Reno, he refused to do anything on Saturday mornings until he watched “Nevada Outdoors” on television. He dreamed about being a Man Alone on the Range. When he was old enough, he hunted and fished and hiked. After he earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management from the University of Nevada, Reno, he started working for the Bureau of Land Management. He had made it. Looking back now, however, Angle says he was never really happy. Outwardly he appeared to love his work, and people told him he was doing a good job, but that was also the problem. He lived for other people’s approval.
He was also silently upset that his wife put so much energy into the church. He refused to attend. “I always thought men who went to church were effeminate,” he says. “Real men go chukar huntin’.” But 19 years ago, he became friends with a man who did go to church. Someone he admired. So he started attending services, and it helped. The Baptist Church gave him an “inner peace.” The anger disappeared, and he became more committed to helping others and he recently became a member of the Promise Keepers, the popular fundamentalist Christian men’s group.
It is with all of this inner peace that he drives to Indian Springs. He looks over the land like a hawk--shaking his head and scratching his thin mustache. “I like this land,” he says, pointing to some gray-green, four-winged salt brush, which looks like it’s covered with dandruff. “I’m proud of this,” he says, arriving at Indian Springs, a meadow full of willows, rabbit brush and yellow monkey flower.
He looks for the Amargosa toad, which is as large as a newborn’s hand. The Amargosa toad has a yellow stripe down its back, and when it’s turned over, it looks as if it’s wearing jeans. “Hummmm, where are you?” he sings. He can’t find one. “Usually come out at night.” He says that if the federal government wasn’t here, the meadow and the Amargosa toad wouldn’t have a chance.
“This is my land; it’s your land. It’s the little ol’ lady in tennis shoes in Mississippi’s land. You know what local control means? The federal government gets out. I’m strong on the Constitution. I don’t want special rights for homosexuals. I’m for balancing the budget. I’m a card-carrying Republican. We need to save this land or it will be gone.”
Although uplands in his district have improved, many riparian, or lowland areas with water, have been degraded, he says, because of cattle. Without riparian areas, wildlife and vegetation die. “Many ranchers’ attitude?” asks Angle. “If it’s not a dust bowl, it’s not a problem.”
Ted Angle searches for a toad, still unable to find one. “Many people think the land in the East and the West are the same, but you can’t find the Amargosa Toad in a garden in L.A.,” he says. “It’s unique to this land. Ah, here’s one!” He lifts it into the air. “Hi, there.” The toad jumps away.
We drive another hour north and then west on Highway 774 toward Goldpoint, a “trespass” mining town. A trespass town is one that people form around mining claims. They often don’t do any mining, and they often don’t pay property taxes. “Look at this crap! Look at it!” Angle says as he drives up. Trash blows in the wind. Rusted out cars are everywhere. Battery acid seeps into the ground. “As a taxpayer, I’m upset by this,” he says. “These people don’t pay any taxes, and they destroy the land. We just don’t have the resources to get ‘em out of here. A bunch of flops.” Ted Angle is mad.
We drive to Pigeon Springs, which is full of pin~on pines, cows and a pathetic trickle of a stream. Angle jumps out of the Bronco.
“This is a real mess,” he says, motioning with his freckled arm. “There used to be grass up to my shoulder! This used to be a thriving meadow! Now it’s brush. The cows have destroyed the topsoil. The good soil is going down the stream. See?” He is right, the soil does go down the stream.
“Stewards of the land?” he asks sarcastically. “How about destroyers of the land? We’re fighting over leftovers here. What a waste.” He looks at the cows on the hill and calls them “political trespass” cattle, which are cows that graze on federal land. Ranchers put them on the land as a political protest. Angle looks disappointed and hurt.
When he awoke at 6 a.m. to study his Bible, he had hoped that he wouldn’t get this kind of punch to his nose. For Angle, a creationist, destroying the land is like punching God in the snout. “I’m in awe of creation. Do I love this land? Nah. But there is a simplicity to it. I like coming out here. The plants don’t care about the budget. The horned toads don’t care about Congress. Just look around at the outdoors. There is stability out here.”
The pin~ons rustle in a gentle breeze, and Ted Angle looks out at the rolling hills. A pine nut falls to the ground, slashing the pristine air. “This was created by God almighty,” he says. “And man can destroy it.” Right then, an orange dragonfly goes for his head. He waves it away as if it were an abusive rancher. But it comes back and circles Angle, unwilling to leave him alone.
Five months after the first court hearing, nothing has been resolved. Ted Angle has left Nye County. (He moved to Reno, the state BLM office, partly because he “couldn’t stand the pressure in Nye.”) Dick Carver is still making the county supremacy speech circuit. (He’s more popular than ever.) At 4 o’clock every afternoon, Echo Bay Ltd. still sets off explosions at its gold mine at Round Mountain, and the Bergs are still adamant about staying put. Both legal teams have filed numerous briefs.
Following the oral arguments, Judge George ordered the two sides to submit a brief concerning the state of Nevada’s legal interest in the ownership and management of public lands. In response, the United States asked the court to join Nevada in the lawsuit. George granted the request and the state filed a brief saying that the federal government has title to the land. Whichever way George rules, the lawyers agree that they will appeal, and both sides believe the case could reach the Supreme Court, because key constitutional questions are at issue.
Nye’s attorneys, Howard and Marzulla, contend that under the equal footing doctrine, which gave new states entering the union the same powers and authorities of the original 13 states, Nevada should be able to control all the lands within its borders. By retaining so much of the land in the West, the federal government denied Western states equal footing. When the state of Nevada entered the union in 1874, the state “forever disclaimed” control of the land. Howard and Marzulla say this kind of “authoritarian control” is unconstitutional.
Peter Coppelman, the Justice Department attorney, argues: “The Property Clause of the Constitution authorizes the federal government to retain and manage lands within the states for the benefit of all citizens.” Without the property clause, areas holding national parks, national wildlife refuges and millions of acres of public land in the West could come into private hands, into fiefdoms not necessarily for the use of every citizen.
Most legal scholars believe 150 years of legal precedent won’t be overturned. “A lot is at stake,” says Sally Fairfax, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management. “But the outcome isn’t in doubt.”
Others insist the county supremacists have already gained. “Behind this case is a conservative agenda,” says Karl Hess Jr., author of “Vision Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range” and a fellow at the Cato Institute, the leading libertarian think tank. “It’s brought about a kind of respectability to county supremacists.”
The cynical might argue that the federal government and the county supremacy movement deserve each other: For every upright rancher, there is one who destroys the land; for every riparian area restored by a BLM agent, there is a tank destroying flora and fauna. Maybe Hegel was correct after all: the definition of tragedy is when both sides are right. What’s unlikely is the innovative solution of having boards made up of local citizens and experts advising the government. After all, this was the recommendation that John Wesley Powell made to Congress after he explored and mapped the West in 1878.
For all the talk of cheap grazing fees and denied permits, the issue goes beyond economics in Nye County. It’s why there is always an air of desperation when you talk to Dick Carver, Skook and Arleen Berg--and Ted Angle. They will lose no matter what the outcome of the case. They worry that they have already lost. The land, which runs through their hearts, is being irrevocably altered. No matter who wins this, and succeeding cases, it is debatable that future generations will know this Nevada desert.
And this might never happen again: a mother and daughter bound to Los Angeles from Philadelphia drive right by Dick Carver’s ranch, through Nye County’s Big Smoky Valley, in a beat-up green Oldsmobile. The little girl rolls down her window and gasps at the wide open spaces and the snow above the timberline on Mt. Jefferson, just glistening in the July wind. “Look!” she says, with awe. “Look at that purple mountain.” Look now.