The term “march” seems greatly underpowered. Horse’s hooves are pounding, fast and hard across miles – nearly 3,000 of them according to the route map – from the west side of the country to the east, where, historically, important decisions are made.
The “express” part of the Grass March Cowboy Express is certainly the picture that comes to mind considering the group plans to complete their trek – from California to Washington DC, in just 20 days, riding every inch of it horseback.
The ranchers and others loping good horses five miles at a time coast-to-coast liken their efforts to Ghandi’s “salt march” in the 1930s when the British government maintained control of the salt in the waters surrounding India.
“The British Government had a total monopoly on all salt,” one of the “Grass March” organizers, county commissioner Grant Gerber from Elko County, Nevada, said. “A citizen of India was even prevented from distilling a little salt from ocean water for his family. All salt had to be bought from the British Government. In Nevada the federal government has a monopoly on Nevada land and the grass. The government owns 87 percent of the land, but also exercises total control over much of the private land as well. The effective control of the government exceeds 92 percent of the grass in Nevada.”
Gerber explained that six ranching families were told in March of this year that they could not turn a single critter out on their Bureau of Land Management grazing allotments because of drought conditions.
While much of Nevada and the southwest has suffered extreme drought, their corner of the world – in the extreme northeast corner of the state has received rain, Gerber said.
“Everybody out here snickers when they hear that we’ve been in a drought. It was a good wet spring and we’ve been getting rain all summer,” he said.
“The grass was 18 inches to two feet high,” said Gerber who helped organize a public viewing of the grass in May to gain public support for his clients who were appealing the BLM’s 100 percent cut - preventing cattlemen from turning their cattle on summer range. Rain has arrived at the right time to grow adequate forage on the Argenta Allotment in the Fort Lewis area in northeast Nevada, and yet the BLM determined that grazing would not be allowed in 2014, he said.
The six families that graze the region were in a tough spot. They own 56 percent of the land and all of the water in the 332,000 acre area but were unable to use even their private rangeland because of the checkerboard nature of the allotment. They sold cattle and grazed winter range in an effort to maintain base cow herds.
Gerber, an attorney for one of the families, said he told them they had three options. “I said you can accept it, you can sue but with the way BLM regulations are you’ll probably lose, or you can go after them with the First Amendment and maybe, just maybe we’ll have a chance.”
After their first 70-mile “grass march” in May to garner public attention for the situation, the BLM allowed ranchers to turn cattle into pastures more than two months later than their agreements call for. But then mid-summer, drought-induced “triggers” were met, according to the BLM, and cattle were required to be removed from the rangeland at least two months early.
An official statement from the state office said, “BLM Nevada attempted to work with the individuals who graze their cows on an area of public lands known as the Argenta Allotment to develop a plan for reduced use that would correspond to the current drought conditions. These cooperative efforts were rejected which forced the Bureau of Land Management to temporarily prohibit grazing on the parts of the Argenta Allotment that had already surpassed recommended use levels.”
Deputy chief of communications for the Nevada BLM Rudy Evanson said “most ranchers” in the state have been agreeable to grazing plan adjustments due to dry conditions. “This is our third year of severe drought in Nevada. So in order for ranchers to continue ranching in the future we need to make the changes we are making today,” he said.
Discrepancies exist between the BLM’s grass monitoring findings and those of the the permittees’ private range consultant, Evanston said, but “obviously we believe that our measurements are correct and we’ve taken actions based on the observations and monitoring done by BLM field staff.” Those actions have directed permittees to remove cattle from nine of 20 use areas, which all six permittes have complied with, he said.
In a news story earlier this year, Pete Tomera, the largest permittee on the allotment, said the triggers BLM set in its agreement with ranchers – which were based on the height of vegetation – and included a minimum four inch grass height in riparian areas, were “unrealistic,” adding that the private range consultant he hired found that there was “an abundance of feed.”
Gerber and his clients believe BLM employee Doug Furtado who stopped 2014 grazing, is “ruling with an iron fist.” The group of ranchers plans to deliver petitions to their state representatives and senators when they arrive in Washington, DC, calling for Furtado’s ousting and a more common sense approach to federal land management.
Furtado, the district manager for battle mountain district, is backed by his superiors, Evanson said. “The actions that he’s taken have the full support of the state office.”
While the removal of Furtado, who designed a statewide drought management plan that hasn’t been released for public comment, is one of the group’s goals, the bigger goal is to raise awareness of federal lands grazing issues.
Ranchers are justified in their concern, Gerber said, citing the removal of cattle from the region around Cliven Bundy, who, of 51 original permittees is the only rancher still grazing that allotment. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s the BLM cancelled all of the grazing rights of 50 ranchers in the Las Vegas district. Fifty ranchers, 50 families, gone. Now they are working to cancel the rights of ranchers in Battle Mountain district and others. In Nevada the BLM and Forest Service have an absolute monopoly on the grass. I for one decided I was not going to accept it.”
Bruce Clegg, Tooele County (Utah) Commissioner and rancher said that while his cattle graze only private land, he, his wife and his son and daughter who comprise his family ranching operation, will ride from the Utah/Nevada state line all the way to Washingtong, DC. Grandkids will join them through Utah and Colorado. As a county decision-maker he is well aware of the economic, cultural and environmental concerns of eliminating livestock grazing. “It would be better for our county to get the land transferred to the state,” he said
“As a county commissioner I need to keep grazing in mind for my constituents,” he said, adding that across the west, counties and states deal with similar issues when it comes to public lands - wild horses, obscure endangered species and overgrowth when grazing is ceased, causing forest and grass fires.
Because 87 percent of Nevada’s land is federally-managed, unelected bureaucrats like Furtado wield an unbalanced amount of power over major segments of the economy and culture of the nation, he said. “People like Furtado have the ability to destroy the grazing which is bad for everything especially wildlife,” Gerber said.
“I plan to ride down the street in Washington DC, and I plan to ride up 17 west, and deliver these petitions,” said Clegg, whose great-grandfather began raising cattle when he arrived in Tooele County Utah in 1849. The family has ranched ever since.
Clegg and his family will use 20 horses throughout the ride, saving their best 12 for the latter part of the trip.
A horse in good condition might take two legs of the journey each day, but many are asked to ride for only one stretch, sometimes only three or four miles in the mountains and other treacherous terrain. After the three- to five-mile jaunt, a horse is trailered and hauled to a gathering place. Some riders immediately mount another, fresh horse, while others take wheeled transportation to the night’s camping spot and prepare for the next day’s ride.
Gerber said along the way, ranchers and others concerned with federal government overreach are asking them to hand their petitions to DC lawmakers. “These petitions are on sage grouse, the water grab by the EPA, a bunch of those kinds of things. We are inviting all counties, city governments, all organizations to put those petitions in our hands and we’ll deliver them.”
This kind of demonstration has never been done, as far as the Gerber knows. Fifty riders have already taken part in some or all of the event. By the time they finish, 100 or more will probably have saddled up for their cause, Gerber expects. Rallies are planned in many cities along the way including Cheyenne, Wyo., and Denver. Seven people will go from beginning to end. “It is an exhilarating feeling. I’m 72 years old and it’s a great experience riding across California and Nevada and going clear to Washington D.C.,” Gerber said.