Storm over the Rockies

Article excerpt

By every barometer of change, a storm is gathering over the Rockies. At a public-lands meeting in Denver, a Stetson-hatted, lizard-booted reincarnation of Patrick Henry excites a roomful of public-land ranchers and miners to a raucous, standing ovation. Flanked by fife and drum players in 1776 garb, the tall, lanky cowboy juts his weathered, angular chin out in defiance, points an accusing finger at an imagined, bigger-than-life federal bureaucrat and proudly proclaims, "This land is our land, not yours."

Twelve hundred miles to the west, county commissioners emboldened with visions of immortality test the waters of rebellion and independence in Nye County, Nevada. They put their John Hancocks on a document declaring that the federal lands in their county are by constitutional right the property of Nevada and by custom and culture the charge of local citizens. A thousand miles southeast in Catron County, New Mexico, a rabble-rousing rancher dares the Forest Service to take--as it has threatened to do--just one cow off his leased public lands. He is certain he can count on his neighbors if the agency is loco enough to try. But just in case, stuck in the back of his frayed and faded Levi jeans is a loaded .44-caliber Magnum.

The West is at war. For now, volleys of angry, bitter words are what shatter the silence of deserts, prairies, and canyons. But the line between words and bullets is fuzzy in a part of the country where emotions run as big and volatile as the land itself. It is only a matter of time before a nervous Forest Service ranger fires in self-defense against a crowd of enraged stockmen or an aggrieved cowboy takes the ultimate act of revenge in a moment of passion. War is here. The only question is, Who is the enemy? Who is the West really fighting?

High Noon on the Western Range

By all rights, it must be the federal government. It's as clear as right and wrong in the archetypal West. On one side are the outnumbered good guys, the white-hatted few and brave whose principles triumph over evil against impossible odds. On the other side are the bad guys, the black-hatted many and contemptible whose lack of principles is their chief undoing. It's High Noon, Shane, and Pale Rider rolled into one: the lone cowboy, the underdog, in all his mythic glory facing down an evil and all-powerful force--a federal establishment of faceless bureaucrats and oppressive laws and regulations. It's the kind of imagery that draws our sympathies and on which most of us were weaned. It's a picture that makes good, common sense.

Look at the numbers and consider the odds. The federal government, not the winsome cowboy, is the classic land monopolist of western folklore. Half the West is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the feds, and in states like Idaho, Utah, California, and Nevada, Uncle Sam is the majority landlord. Making matters worse, the feds--like the evil land barons of Hollywood legend--are gobbling up more western land by the tens of thousands of acres every year, often by ruthless means.

Look at resources. The grazing budgets alone of the two western land-managing agencies--the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management--are so large that they could buy out every public-land ranch in the West at fair market value over a period of four years. Look at the rules that govern public-land ranching. In the past quarter century alone, the pages of laws, regulations, and policies promulgated by Uncle Sam have come to dwarf the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Look at the numbers of people. The 28,000 men and women who ranch in the federal West are outnumbered by just the Forest Service and BLM employees who watchdog the people's land.

If there is a bigger-than-life western, it's got to be the public-land West. It's a tale as old as the republic, a story that recounts in a hundred ways the nation's epic struggles with big government. In the 1830s, John C. Calhoun fought to have federal lands ceded to the states in order to weaken the escalating power of the federal government. …