ELKO — Battle Mountain BLM District Manager Doug Furtado’s order of July 23 that ranchers remove their cattle from Mount Lewis has spurred the ranchers and their supporters to carry their fight to remove Furtado from office to Washington, D.C., via the Grass March and Cowboy Express.
“I know we can do it,” declared Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber. “After the experience we had with the Grass March and Cowboy Express going from Elko to Carson City in May, we now know that we could leave next week and make it to Washington in approximately 20 days. That shakedown ride was over 10 percent of the distance to Washington.”
“We will need a lot of volunteer riders and horses, but we know we can get it done,” agreed Jess Jones.
Jones, of Lamoille, is serving as boss of the transcontinental Grass March/Cowboy Express and his wife Katie is serving as coordinator. Those interested in taking part can contact her at 925-640-1102, Eddyann Filippini at 775-635-3654 or Gerber’s law office at 738-9258.
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The organizers said they also are seeking donations from individuals and businesses to help defray the substantial costs of the huge undertaking. Expenses will include hay, grain, fuel, food and lodging.
The ambitious continuation of the Grass March/Cowboy Express across the entire continental United States is set to begin Sept. 29 and the organizers hope to have it completed in less than three weeks.
The original Grass March in May carried petitions seeking Furtado’s ouster on horseback from Elko to Battle Mountain and likened the plight of Nevada ranchers under the rule of the Bureau of Land Management to the plight of the people of India in the 1920s under British rule. Gandhi staged his Salt March in 1930 to call attention to the British enforced monopoly on salt. The local Grass March was staged to call attention to the BLM’s monopoly on Nevada’s grass lands.
Control over grass
In Nevada, the federal government claims outright ownership of nearly 90 percent of the state land and, through the checkerboard railroad corridor, exercises effective control over hundreds of thousands of additional acres of privately owned land. As an example, the Argenta Allotment under contention in Lander County is only 46 percent federally owned; the remaining 54 percent is privately owned by the ranchers and others. Gerber calculates that 92 percent of the grass in Nevada is under the absolute control of the federal government.
Additionally, the ranchers own the rights to all the water in the Mount Lewis area. But despite the fact it owns only a minority interest of the total acreage and none of the water, the BLM exercises complete control of the entire 336,000-acre allotment.
The original Grass March handed off the petitions to the Cowboy Express in Battle Mountain and it delivered them, Pony Express-style, to Gov. Brian Sandoval in Carson City. The trip from Elko to Carson City took four days.
Lander County ranching families have been battling the BLM since last February, when Furtado announced that because of the continuing drought he was not going to permit any grazing on the Mount Lewis portion of the Argenta Allotment. The livelihoods of the several members of the extended Tomera, Filippini and Mariluch families were threatened by the closure, and the Tomeras sought the advice of Gerber, an Elko attorney.
Gerber advised the ranchers they stood absolutely no chance of prevailing in court before this year’s grazing season and only a slightly better chance of prevailing in the long run. He also cautioned them, “You can’t afford to fight the federal government in court. You might win one or two rounds, but it just keeps coming back.” Instead, he suggested the ranchers attempt to battle Furtado in the “Court of Public Opinion,” using the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Those freedoms are of religion (prayer), speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
First Grass Tour
In May, the ranchers hosted a Grass Tour to show everyone interested that spring rains had rejuvenated the grasses on the contested range. One stand of grass on the tour was measured at 22 inches tall. Many of the neighboring ranchers on the tour commented that they wished their rangelands were as good as what they were looking at on the tour.
The aggrieved ranchers also hired independent range consultants to conduct scientific evaluations of the contested range and one of the experts, Bob Schweigert of Intermountain Range Consultants in Winnemucca, reported grass heights three to four times as high as the past two drought years.
“I would call it a normal year,” Schweigert said, “certainly not drought conditions by forage standards.”
Still, Furtado refused to rescind his closure and plans were announced for the Grass March and Cowboy Express to deliver petitions with more than 1,000 signatures seeking a redress of grievances. The public pressure earned a visit by BLM officials from Reno and Washington, D.C. The federal agents refused to allow any public participation in their meetings with local and BLM officials, but shortly after their visit, Furtado relented and allowed the ranchers to turn out cattle at the end of May, nearly two and a half months later than normal.
The ranchers estimated the delay and fencing requirements demanded by the BLM cost them approximately $500,000.
Last month, the ranchers and their supporters also erected a Cowboy Grass Camp across the highway from the Battle Mountain BLM office replete with cowboy tents, wagons and other western artifacts. Signage at the camp calls for Furtado’s ouster. Those manning the camp vowed to keep it operating until Furtado is removed from office.
Schweigert explained that the ranchers had to sign new grazing agreements with the BLM on May 23, before they would be allowed to turn out their cattle. He points out that the BLM has already violated two terms of that agreement.
First, the agreement states that the BLM agree to review key monitoring locations, in coordination with the Argent permitees or their representatives, during the week of June 2-6. When the ranchers arrived at the BLM office on the morning of June 2, they were told the project was cancelled. The next day, however, rancher Dan Filippini came across a BLM employee out conducting range studies without any representation from the ranchers.
Secondly, the May 23 agreement states “BLM agrees to notify and invite any relevant Argenta permittee prior to any scheduled monitoring of the allotment.” No prior notification was given for the June 3 monitoring effort and on July 21 the ranchers were given just a 36-hour notice that the BLM would begin monitoring the range with three teams deployed to three separate locations.
At the time of the July 21 announcement, Schweigert and his staff were in Idaho conducting range studies for another client, and Jack Alexander of Synergy Resource Solutions, who represents Dan and Eddyann Filippini, was at home in his office in Belgrade, Mont. Schweigert immediately dispatched one of his employees on the 500-mile drive to Battle Mountain and Alexander booked a flight to Salt Lake City and rented a car for the remaining 300-mile drive to Lander County.
Eddyann Filippini reported that after Alexander’s frantic trip from Montana, he arrived at the Mill Creek Campground at the BLM-appointed time only to learn the BLM had finished a portion of its work and the agents refused to go over that portion again with the ranchers’ agent.
The ranchers say Furtado has lied to them and their representatives, and they feel it is imperative that they are allowed to have their representatives accompany and verify the BLM range monitoring efforts.
“They lied to us again,” Eddyann Filippini said. “Furtado can’t be trusted and we don’t trust the data they collect from the range monitoring sites when they don’t allow us to accompany them.”
She added, “Getting information is like pulling teeth. We have made two written requests for all of BLM’s drought monitoring data and still have not received anything. This latest stunt, less than two days’ notice of the monitoring effort, is typical.”
She also cautioned Elko County ranchers that they should be very concerned about what’s happening in Lander County, since the Elko BLM Drought Environmental Assessment is exactly the same as the one being used to curtail grazing by the Battle Mountain district.
Public not welcome
The Battle Mountain BLM office has operated under a veil of secrecy. Furtado has failed to return phone messages left on the direct line to his desk and the BLM has told the ranchers repeatedly not to invite any outside interests to their meetings. Prior to the July 23 effort to evaluate the range, the BLM’s Mike Vermeys stated the BLM would cancel the survey if any members of the general public showed up to participate in the process.
“Notwithstanding this threat to the permittees, the BLM itself conducted a clandestine tour of the Argenta Allotment with Western Watershed Project on July 16, without any notification to the permittees whatsoever,” Schweigert reported. Western Watersheds is a notorious anti-ranching environmental organization.
Gerber charged that it is absolutely intolerable that families that have been ranching and supporting the local economies in this area for well over 100 years have to deal with such treachery from federal bureaucrats.
“Furtado is a deceitful, vindictive man and no law-abiding Nevadan should be forced to live under his authoritative rule,” he said.
Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl added, “The problems created by the BLM in Battle Mountain are typical of many of the problems created by the federal agencies throughout the West and emphasize the importance of transferring the public lands from the federal government to the states.”
Rex Steninger is a former editor and publisher of the Elko Daily Free Press.