AUSTIN, Nev. — There was standing room only in the Austin Community Center — housed in the historic old Methodist Church perched on a hill above Main Street, a short stretch of U.S. Highway 50, proudly dubbed the Loneliest Highway in America.
Decked out in boots and jeans, large metal belt buckles, baseball caps with logos and every cowboy hat blocking style imaginable from New Mexico to Montana were 100 or so ranchers, ranch hands, wives, state lawmakers, county commissioners, contractors, consultants and even a district attorney and a sheriff. The number of neckties peaked at one.
They came this past week from across Central Nevada in search of tactics and strategies that would allow them to preserve their uniquely Western lifestyle and livelihood in the face of the most voracious predator know to the cattle and sheep industry — the federal public land bureaucracy, especially the Bureau of Land Management.
“The purpose of this workshop today is not to just talk about issues. We all know what the issues are. We could sit around and complain about them all day long,” workshop moderator Jake Tibbitts, the natural resources manager for Eureka County, told the assemblage. “We all know what they are. We really want to focus on the solutions, the tools at hand, whether it is the rights you have out there or whether it is within the current laws that you can leverage and use, the way you can work with your county commissioners, your local elected officials, your state representatives, state agencies.”
All the ranchers have private land but the vast majority of the acreage on which they graze their cattle and sheep is managed by one federal agency or another. Over the past several decades those agencies have found one excuse or another to severely ratchet down the number of animals allowed — drought, assorted endangered species, too many wild horses. Nevada has lost half of its breeding cows over the past three years alone — down to only 300,000 head compared to more than a million in the 1980s.
“First, you’ve got to know what your rights are,” Tibbits told the ranchers, “before you can defend your rights.”
Though the feds may control the surface, there are rights held by the ranchers. Angus McIntosh II, a professor from New Mexico State University, wrote in 2012 that “a grazing allotment is not ‘public land’ but is a ‘real-property’ interest in the nature of an easement, possessing all the ‘incidents and remedies usually attending the fee’ and giving the rancher ‘control’ or management authority over his allotment interests. It is a real-property right comprised of five specific components: 1) the patented ‘base property’ and partial interest/split estate ownership of, 2) water rights, 3) forage-grazing values, 4) easements, and 5) range improvements. You should understand these are compensable private rights belonging to the individual ranch owner, separate and distinct from the government’s title to the underlying land.”
Dwayne Coombs, owner of Smith Creek Ranch, explained it is about more than rights and fees. In 2000 his ranch was facing a demand for a 50 percent reduction in AUMs (animal units per month). He was spending in excess of $100,000 in some years on consultant and attorney fees. “We determined that wasn’t sustainable for us.”
Coombs noted that “economist Milton Friedman said if everybody owns the land, then nobody owns the land. If no one owns the land, there is no reason to make the land better. I really, truly believe that in a lot of cases we need to retake the ownership of our lands. If we have the water rights on that land, if we hold the grazing permits on that land, that’s home for us.”
While talking with a BLM horse expert — when there were about 500 percent more horses in the local AML (appropriate management level) than it could handle — Coombs said he asked him, “Is there something we can do with these horses?
“He said, ‘Well, really what you’ve got to do is go home and figure it is a broken system and go on and forget about it.’ “And I told him, ‘Sir, this is my home. I am home. I can’t go forget about it.’”
While talking about grazing fees and protecting various species and the land itself, it is too easy to forget that it also is about homes and families — often several generations of families who call the land home.
(Next week: More from Austin.)
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing email@example.com. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.