When a Nevada county commissioner in May led a horseback ride more than 300 miles across northern Nevada to protest the Bureau of Land Management's grazing closures on public lands, it got the agency's attention.
The "Grass March" from Elko to Carson City -- modeled after Gandhi's Salt March to protest British colonialism -- garnered national headlines and spurred BLM to cut a deal allowing ranchers to turn their cattle back out onto the land, said Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber, who led the ride.
But the grazing deal imploded last month after BLM found cows had eaten too much grass and the agency ordered the closure of about 50,000 acres of the Argenta allotment, a move that affected six extended ranching families (Greenwire, Aug. 25). Drought, BLM argues, threatens the long-term health of the range, as well as the greater sage grouse, which uses the lands to mate, raise young and hide from predators.
The ranchers disagreed and have challenged the decision in an Interior Department administrative court (Greenwire, Aug. 27).
They're also seeking a win in the court of public opinion.
Gerber, 72, is planning a coast-to-coast horseback ride next month, dubbed the "Cowboy Express," to protest land-use restrictions imposed by BLM's Battle Mountain, Nev., District Manager Doug Furtado.
"The theme of it is 'regulation without representation is tyranny,'" said Gerber, an attorney and fourth-generation Nevadan whose family ranched the area beginning in the 1800s. "We have no local control on any federal land issue. It's tyranny for one man to be able to dominate a whole region."
The ride will begin Sept. 26 at Point Reyes National Seashore and will continue roughly 20 days to Washington, D.C., and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean, Gerber said. Organizers say they already have about 10 riders. They'll take turns riding, with a motor home and pickups with horse trailers following behind.
Gerber and local ranchers say Furtado, at the behest of environmentalists, is bent on removing livestock from the Battle Mountain District, a claim BLM emphatically denies. The ride will stop in Carson City on Sept. 29 to pick up petitions calling for Furtado's removal and carry them to Washington.
"We value the important contributions made by the ranching community to the management of our public lands and enjoy positive working relationships with ranchers throughout the West," said BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington. "We will continue to work collaboratively to address issues related to the Argenta allotment."
While ranching disputes are not uncommon in Nevada, a state with a heavy anti-federal sentiment, BLM is watching the Argenta situation closely, as it comes months after the agency's nearly violent run-in with rancher Cliven Bundy.
Katie Fite, a biologist for the Western Watersheds Project, an anti-grazing group that frequently sues BLM to eliminate cows from public lands, criticized Gerber as an "agitator" who bullies federal agencies into appeasing local livestock interests.
In 2000, Gerber represented about 300 people in what was known as the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, which cleared a Volkswagen-sized boulder from a road the Forest Service had closed to protect bull trout. The road clearing, which came five years after a pipe bomb was detonated at a Forest Service campground toilet, gained Elko the reputation as the "most lawless county in the West," according to a 2001 article in Mother Jones.
"It's all about showmanship," Fite said of Gerber's Cowboy Express. "The purpose is the same: to paralyze BLM. If they know they're going to face this severe degree of resistance ... are they going to issue decisions telling cows to get off sage grouse habitat?"
But organizers say the ride represents more than the plight of Nevada ranchers. Its beginning location at Point Reyes is symbolic. That's where the National Park Service recently declined to renew a permit for the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., in favor of promoting wilderness. Riders will carry petitions raising grievances over endangered species, water, wildfire, wetlands, wilderness and "other mismanagement failures" of the federal government, according to the ride’s website.
Kevin Lunny, who owns the oyster farm, said he's aware of the ride and wants to do more research before offering an opinion. But he said he sympathizes with the ranchers' experience, saying he was the victim of a Park Service decision driven by politics.
"They recognized the Interior Department had a desire to remove the oyster farm" and used questionable science, said Lunny, who also grazes cattle for a living. "Those tactics are very objectionable to most Americans."
Eddyann Filippini, who is one of the three permittees asked to remove livestock from the Argenta allotment, said she was previously ordered to remove 900 cows from two separate allotments due to drought. "Everyone's getting a ding," she said.
Filippini said she plans to ride the entire route beginning from Carson City.
Gerber said he scheduled the ride in late September so it would be cool for the horses but not too late in the year that riders would encounter snow. It's also timed to coincide with a new moon phase, he said, which will allow some overnight rides.
Gerber said Nevada residents are frustrated that they cannot elect or fire BLM officials and hope to raise awareness of broader abuses occurring on federal lands.
In Nevada, the federal government owns 87 percent of the land, but Gerber said it has de facto ownership of about 92 percent of the grass given that much of the land is in a checkerboard ownership.
"I'll have to fight to do my share of the riding," he said.
It's unclear what they'll do when, and if, they reach Washington. Gerber said he plans to ride "up the steps and into the halls," but he did not elucidate.
BLM last week acknowledged the hardships drought and grazing reductions have caused ranchers but said the sacrifices have been shared.
Across Nevada, ranchers already have voluntarily agreed to forgo roughly 440,000 animal unit months (AUMs) in 2014, which is a more than 20 percent reduction from total AUMs, BLM said. Steps include livestock adjustments, grazing rotations, water hauling or rest of pastures. An AUM is the amount of forage needed to feed a cow and her calf for one month.