BATTLE MOUNTAIN — Two hundred concerned citizens turned out Saturday for the Grass Tour of the Argenta Allotment south of Battle Mountain that was closed for grazing earlier this year by the Bureau of Land Management’s District Manager Doug Furtado.
The collection of ranchers, citizens and elected representatives was taken on a tour that showed thousands of acres of tall, green grass and listened to a report from Bob Schweigert of Intermountain Range Consultants, who said the range was in good shape and fully capable of supporting cattle.
“The BLM likes to say all this green grass is not forage, but recovery,” Schweigert told the assembly. “I’m here to tell you it is not recovery, it is recovered.”
The Grass Tour was organized by Elko attorney and Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber and former rancher and state assemblyman John Carpenter, who also is a candidate for Elko County Commissioner. They are trying to get Furtado to reverse his decision to close the mountain allotment to grazing.
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“We were so pleased with the great support from our wonderful friends,” Lynn Tomera said. “Thank you all.”
The 340,000-acre allotment, which is 56 percent private property, is grazed by the extended Tomera and Filippini families. The closure has left them all scrambling for alternative pasture and facing financial ruin. Furtado says the closure was necessary in response to the drought of the past three years. The ranchers point out he made his decision last winter and that the rains over the past four months have ended the drought and the range is in good condition.
Following an opening prayer and Pledge of Allegiance Saturday morning, Carpenter introduced the various elected representatives who were there to show their support. They included Nevada State Sen. Pete Goicoechea, Assemblymen Ira Hansen and John Ellison, the Lander County Commission and the Elko County Commission, the Pershing County District Attorney, the Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney, and Nevada Cattlemen’s Association President Ron Torell. U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei sent staffers to voice their support.
Carpenter asked if anyone in the group was there to represent the BLM. When no one stepped forwarded, Carpenter quipped, “I guess that says a lot, since we made a special effort to invite them.”
Furtado also has not returned two phone messages left at his desk over the past week seeking comment for this story.
All of those who spoke offered support for the ranchers and condemnation of the BLM, but Schweigert, an expert in range rehabilitation, came loaded with facts and figures he had gathered over the past several weeks after conducting a scientific evaluation of the allotment on behalf of the ranchers.
“I would call it a normal year,” Schweigert told the crowd, “certainly not drought conditions by forage standards. Last year, and other drier years, I have measured seed-stalk height of squirrel tail and Sandberg’s bluegrass at three to four inches at full maturity. Here, we are at around 11 to 12 inches tall.”
The range consultant explained he purposely analyzed the “worst case scenario,” the lowest elevation sites in the summer-use area. Additionally, he pointed out, the BLM has ignored the fact the Argenta Allotment had significant rains last fall that resulted in a lot of green new growth during the “so-called drought.”
Schweigert told the crowd Saturday that particularly the cheat grass needs to be eaten now, while it is still green and full of protein and nutrients.
“Cows will get pig-fat on this grass right now,” he said, but in a couple of weeks it will dry out and lose most of its benefit. At that point, Schweigert and many of the other speakers pointed out, the dried grass becomes a tremendous fire danger.
Smoked Bear made an appearance during the tour and sat in the tall grass with Alyx Vogler and a group of children. Vogler had a big sack of stuffed animals and pulled out one at a time and asked the kids, “If all this grass catches fire, do you think this little critter will make it out?” “No,” the kids replied. “That’s right,” Vogler answered, “it will die.”
Gerber explained that the government’s own figures state that, on a very low average, three animals are killed in every acre that burns in a wild fire. Using that figure, more than a million animals would die if the entire 340,000-acre Argenta Allotment burned.
On top of that, millions of tax dollars would be wasted fighting the fire and the lives of hundreds of firefighters would be put at risk.
Assemblyman Hansen, R-Reno, accused Furtado of pushing a political agenda with flawed science and also accused him of intimidation and deceit. He told the audience that he had firsthand knowledge of the district manager’s deceit. He explained he was encouraged by Sen. Goicoechea to attend a meeting this winter between the ranchers on the allotment and Furtado. However, Goicoechea didn’t know the exact time of the meeting, so Hansen called the Battle Mountain BLM office and asked to speak to Furtado. Furtado told him that no meeting was in the works.
But within an hour of his phone call to Furtado, Hansen received another call from a rancher who reported the meeting was definitely being held and Furtado had just warned him that if Sen. Goicoechea and Assemblyman Hansen attended, he would cancel the meeting. Despite that warning, Hansen called his bluff and attended the meeting. He told the Saturday gathering that encounter with the director serves as testimony to the character of the man.
To back up his claim of intimidation, Hansen explained when a petition to remove Furtado from office was started in Battle Mountain, Furtado sent out an armed ranger dressed in “full SWAT costume” to the hardware store where the petition was available. The ranger warned it was “a federal offense to threaten a BLM employee” and proceeded to take pictures of the petition.
The intimidation backfired, however, and petitions now are also available in Elko, Winnemucca and Eureka. Gerber guesses close to 1,000 signatures have been collected so far.
The county commissioner also reminded everyone that the petition is not a threat, but the exercise of the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … or the right of the people … to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“The citizens of the Battle Mountain BLM District have been harmed by the decisions made by Director Furtado and it is their right to petition their elected representatives. Now it is the duty of those representatives to remedy the problem,” Gerber said.
Assemblyman Ellison, R-Elko, addressed the crowd during one of the stops along the tour and pointed to children playing on the surrounding hills.
“There is a truly endangered species — our future generation of ranchers,” he said.
He then cautioned everyone to stand together or the federal government would destroy them one at a time, “just like a predator attacking a herd.”
Alan Dueck of Battle Mountain echoed that theme and added, “This tour should not end on this mountain. The real work begins when we leave.”
He implored everyone in attendance to go home and begin writing letters to their elected officials and the BLM.
“Letters work,” he said.
Elko County Commissioner and longtime states’ rights advocate Demar Dahl reminded those in attendance that the problems they were witnessing were typical.
“Washington makes the decisions about our public lands from thousands of miles away,” he said. “You can only vote for a few of those in Congress and you can vote for none of the bureaucrats whose decisions impact your life directly. It is time to transfer the management of the lands closer to home.”
Lenny Shepard of Battle Mountain was one of the last to address the assembled citizens.
“We have our elected officials here supporting us, we have a range consultant that says the allotment can support the cows, and we have our sheriff here. Open the gates,” he demanded.