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Poison Letters

Down in Tonapah, Nevada, BLM manager Ted Angle served as the key government official on the receiving end of the county power movement’s attempt to push the federal government off the public range. On August 2, 1994, the Nye County board of commissioners wrote to Angle:

“Our board decided that, since you have yet to provide proof that the BLM has ownership of the public lands, or that the BLM has constitutionally granted jurisdiction, or that you have been delegated the proper authority over grazing allotments in Nye County, your decisions are of no consequence. Should anyone make any attempt to enforce your final decisions this board will take action to see that charges are brought against those persons as individuals for acting outside of their authority.”

On January 15, 1995, Dick Carver, the vice-chair of the Nye County board, again demanded “proof” that federal government owned the federal lands. Carver warned: “Should follow through with further economic devastation to this grazing right, this board will take action to see that charges are filed against the person or persons involved for acting outside of their delegated authority.”

Comical as they sound, these chop-logic letters were the tokens of an insurrection.

Beginning in March 1995, Ted Angle received a flurry of letters from local ranchers who claimed, citing the Constitution, that the federal government has no authority over public lands. The writers insisted that whatever claims the federal government might have had to the public lands ended in 1864 when Nevada became a state, and that jurisdiction today lies with the state, not the feds.

Therefore, the renegade ranchers argued, they are not in violation of any law and that any federal employee attempting to enforce the law is operating “outside the scope of his or her written delegation of authority” and has therefore “lost his or her federal immunity to prosecution.”

Finally, one letter threatened, “Should such an act occur I may take proper legal action, both criminal and civil, against the individual or individuals involved.”

The government was slow to react to these escalating tensions. Angle alerted his superiors to the situation, but he later said, “It took a while for them to decide what type of strategy to develop in response. They basically said we would take an indirect approach insofar as trying to implement the decisions.”

At that moment, at least five Nye County ranchers were intentionally (and illegally) running cattle on BLM lands under Angle’s jurisdiction. The government avoided a confrontation.

These types of conflicts took place all over Nevada during the Clinton years. There’s the Bundy case down near Las Vegas, and another along the California border where a rancher threatened to kill federal agents if they tried to reduce his cattle numbers.

In the northeastern corner of Nevada, the town of Elko sued the Forest Service over water rights in the Humboldt National Forest. Jim Nelson described the situation this way: “It goes back the to the DeVall case, where a guy claimed that the water from Kelly Springs on national forest property was his and he built a diversion. We took him to court. The court agreed with us and issued a citation. We plugged the ditch. Then DeVall came back with a party of 100 people packing guns to rebuild the diversion. They were out there threatening our three folks. And the town backed them up with a suit.”

In the Ruby Mountains, south of Elko, a husband and wife team of Forest Service range conservationists were faced with nearly daily intimidation. In this heavily Mormon country, federal officials are ostracized by the local communities. People won’t sit next to them in church. Their children are shunned at school, and daily life becomes increasingly difficult.

The federal government’s response was limp and toothless. Cliff Gardner, a renegade rancher in the Elko area, ran his cows illegally on federal lands and repeatedly threatened Forest Service officials. In response, he was cited for trespass. But the suit only asked for civil damages. Not much of a deterrent.

Ted Angle felt alone on the front lines and uncertain about how the federal government back his decisions or whether it would protect him and his family against threats of violence. He was once paid a visit by a local rancher, accompanied by the head of a property rights group. “The guy gave me a letter that said basically, these are Nevada state lands. The regulations that I had cited were of no consequence, and that if I proceeded to try to enforce my decisions charges would be pressed against me in local court. He asked me if I had read the letter, and I said, yes, I read it. And he said, well, that good because now we can take your house and your boat and your car.”

Unsure of what might happen next and sitting on the receiving end of threats from these vigilante ranchers, Angle felt compelled to purchase a $2 million liability insurance policy from a private company in Washington, D. C.

“Just to put it on a real personal level, the whole approach is to intimidate the local folks on the ground so they’ll stay in the office and not go out there to see what’s happening to the land, count the numbers of livestock and make decisions to change some of the things that are going on.”

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

(This article is excerpted from Green Scare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank, forthcoming from Haymarket Books. It is based in part on reporting done in 1995 by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Jim Ridgeway for the Village Voice.)

 

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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