Monthly Archives: April 2014
Zion Search and Rescue: The High Angle with Bo Beck
Bo Beck, Photo courtesy of http://www.elveschasm.com
Bo Beck is a household name in southern Utah, at least in the outdoor community. Even if you don’t know his name, it is possible you have seen his face in the Desert Rat if you have gone in there for any outdoor gear. Though Bo is often synonymous with Zion National Park because of his co-written book with Tanya Milligan, Favorite Hikes In & Around Zion National Park, and the fact that he knows quite a bit about all things outside in this area, it is his service to the outdoor community that marks him as a local icon. Not only is he a great and personable guy, not only is he an avid outdoorsman, he is also part of Zion National Park’s high angle search and rescue team. In other words, if you get into a bad situation out in the wild and need to be rescued, there is a high probability that Bo will be one of the rescuers on the scene. It is for these reasons that I wanted to get to know Bo and get out on some adventures with him, but also why I wanted to tell a part of his story to the community that benefits from his expertise and watchful eye.
It was still dark as we sped toward Zion National Park. The plateaus and bluffs were just large shadows against the night sky as it turned cobalt blue with the approach of dawn. The roads were largely empty as the towns lay in slumber. We were on our way to hike Lady Mountain, one of the peaks in Zion National Park. An earlier attempt had been cut short due to an injury, so I was inching for that summit. I was hoping it would not elude me again. Lady Mountain was the first maintained front country trail in Zion. It still has remnants of the Park’s attempts to maintain it as shorn off metal bolts can be seen periodically sticking out of rock faces on the scramble up, hinting at a time when chains, rails, and ladders were installed to help people up the strenuous route. Though it is no longer listed by Zion National Park as a designated trail, it is still a popular backcountry trail for those who know it is there. Our group consisted of two vehicles. I rode with Bo to get an interview with him on the way up.
Bo is not a native to southern Utah, but despite his somewhat misleading Midwestern accent, he is a native to the Southwest. Originally from New Mexico, and not far from southern Utah, he took the long way to get here via a stint in the Air Force, sailing around the world, and ultimately taking a job at an outdoor retailer located in St. George. Most people who know Bo know him as the manager of the Desert Rat, the local outdoor store, or as part of Zion Search and Rescue (SAR). Though I have known Bo for half a dozen years, we didn’t become friends until a couple of years ago. Strangely enough we got to know each other through tragedy, which I am certain, is probably true of a lot of people who know him. He was friends with Lyle Hurd who died rock climbing in Zion 2012. He had been there for the recovery, and we were both part of the long funeral process.
But it was my first outing with him that really put some meat on our relationship. I had wanted to do a canyon with him for some time, so when he invited me to do Employee Canyon with him and a group of people, I excitedly said yes. After I accepted the invitation he told me that the trip was being done for a woman who wanted to put closure on her sister’s death that had happened some 15 years ago at the very canyon we were going through. That knowledge added a solemn hue to the trip as we traced the route that Tiffany’s sister Sasha had taken. We hiked to the top of Mountain of the Sun and then canyoneered down through Employee Canyon, also known as Lodge Canyon. There was no way around imaging Sasha’s death as we made the final rappel where she had fallen 150 feet to her death. In the hanging garden at the bottom songs of remembrance were played, tears were shed, and hugs were passed at what felt like another funeral. I felt humbled to be there and will never again do or look at that canyon without thinking of the young woman who fell while trying to duck out of the way of a falling rock.
Outdoor adventure is dangerous and carries a certain amount of risk, no matter how prepared or skilled. The recent base jumping deaths at Zion show that even professional outdoor athletes die from mishaps and chance. Due to my history with Bo and the fact that we were heading out to do a dangerous hike, I asked him how he had become a part of Zion’s SAR team.
His career with Zion’s high angle search and rescue unit happened by chance through his big wall climbing partner, Dean Woods, at Zion in the summer of 1996. Dean was amongst a handful of other big wall climbers who had volunteered to help Zion National Park’s Acting Chief Ranger Dave Buccello, who was in charge of emergency services, with his high angle rescue team operations. Dean had asked Bo if he would help out with a mock rescue operation on Sheer Lunacy, a climbing route near Angel’s Landing. Bo was intrigued and accepted. He climbed to the top of Sheer Lunacy and lowered himself a few hundred feet so that the team could affect a rescue. At the end of the day as they were getting ready to leave, a call came in for the rescue of a woman in the Subway. Dave asked Bo if he would like to come along and help. He accepted. The next morning he got a call from Dave asking him if he would like to be a part of the high angle rescue team and the rest, as they say, is history.
That was almost 20 years ago. Bo is now a seasoned, crusty, mid 50 year old man with near a quarter century of experience in rescue who could out-hike most 20 year olds. He is not only knowledgeable and experienced, he is unabashedly protective of the role of search and rescue and the people who choose to do it. “Ultimately, your safety is up to you,” Bo said, “Do the research, get trained, know the routes, have the right and necessary gear, and if possible, go with someone experienced and responsible who knows the route. The SARs mission is not to save people, but to rescue people – if possible.” While it is understandable that when someone dies out in the wilderness the loved ones left behind want to know the details about how and why it happened, it is also often the case that they are looking for someone or something to blame. Unfortunately that blame is often directed at search and rescue personnel. I asked him about the placement of blame on SAR personnel.
“People look for somebody to blame. Maybe there is somebody to blame. When something goes wrong, families and people are looking for answers. Sometimes it’s nature. Sometimes it’s a decision made by someone that ended up being fatal. Search and rescue cannot be blamed for anything. Search and rescue is not there to keep everyone safe. They are there to rescue someone if they can, but not at the expense of their own lives. Training is a big part of that. Sometimes it turns out, sometimes it doesn’t. Mistakes can be made. But again, for search and rescue, the number one priority is the safety of the SAR team. Period. They don’t want another injury or fatality. When the safety of the team is secure, they then go in for the injured person. Teams are constantly training for different scenarios, but situations are always different, and all you can do is continue to learn and do the best that you can.”
I asked how dangerous it was for SAR teams to go out on rescues, “When someone engages in dangerous activities there is always risk involved. It’s always dangerous, there is always danger involved no matter what.” I asked Bo what his advice would be to people wishing to canyoneer or get into the backcountry. “Training, get the training,” he said, “By training, that danger can be mitigated to a certain degree. But there’s always going to be danger. You can’t control if a rock is going to fall and hit somebody, or if someone is going to slip and wasn’t properly tied in, or the wrong knot was tied or something of that nature. So it’s always constant, but you can mitigate risk with the proper training. You have one opportunity for a mistake. You can’t learn on the fly. If possible, go with someone who knows the route. Someone conscientious and capable will be able to help you and give you sound advice on the beta to safely do a route.” We briefly talked about expert athletes getting injured and killed to which Bo replied, “Nobody’s exempt. Nobody. You can’t control everything; you’ve just got to control what you can based on what you know.”
As we drew closer to The Lady, my stomach started to get tied up in knots. I felt like a superstitious sailor engaged in conversation about capsized ships and drowned sailors while heading into a storm and wondered if we should stop talking about dislodged rocks and people falling to their deaths. Lady Mountain is 1.9 miles of near vertical scrambling and climbing, with an elevation gain of 2,345 feet in 1.6 miles. The narrow trail has a couple of sketchy 5.7 climbs on sheer walls with high altitude drop offs, as well as several steep pitches. I was familiar with these sections as we were almost to the summit when we had to abandon the trip out of safety concerns for our injured team member. I prayed this trip would be successful and injury free.
Do you dread the calls when they come in, fearful it is someone you know? I asked. “Yeah, I think I have from the very beginning,” he said, “Prior to Sasha I had done maybe two or three other body recoveries in Zion and I didn’t know who they were, but after a body recovery the National Park Service has you attend a critical incident stress debriefing. You sit with someone who is trained to help you deal with it emotionally. I went to the first couple of those and it wasn’t really too bothersome to me; however, when I went to get Sasha’s body, you know she’s about the same age as my daughter. I imaged if it was my daughter and how it would have crushed me. I put myself in the shoes of her dad who was there that evening and it was tough. I didn’t go to the critical incident debriefing after her recovery. I think I held that in. I didn’t let it out. It was with me for all those years. Then when Tiffany wanted to do Employee Canyon to get closure, I looked at it as an opportunity for me to get closure too; maybe I needed it as well. And it was great, it was beautiful, to finally let go. It was kind of a double release for me because I had been on the recovery for Lyle’s body a year prior, who was a pretty close friend. I was finally able to let go.”
I asked him if he felt a responsibility to people since Bo is often the go-to man when people have questions about canyoneering, climbing, hiking, and anything outdoor related. I would image he talks to hundreds of people. “When a customer I knew had to get rescued twice I thought, you know, maybe I shouldn’t be dispelling so much information to these people. Maybe I shouldn’t be prodding them on to pursue this. I should probably get to know the people a little more and see what their capabilities are.” I could imagine that given Bo’s experience in search and rescue, he might feel an added burden for the safety of people embarking on such adventures. I asked him if that was why he was so giving with his time and so willing to go out with people. He had always been willing to go with me and I knew he went out often with others, friends and strangers alike.
“I think I do not consciously feel that weight. Honestly, it is more of an ego thing. I like to take people out and show them what I’ve done. It may make me sound like a jackass, but in a way, it’s an ego thing. I enjoy doing it because I like showing people what I’ve done. But at the same time, yeah, I think I like to ensure people are safe and I try to instill in people to be safe. You know, you were there on the last Lady Mountain trip. I said let’s stick together as a group. Well, half the group took off and I thought later, maybe if we had stuck together nothing would have happened. I can’t blame myself. I’ve been with a good friend before where I told her not to do something and then when I turned around; she did it anyway and almost fell to her death. So I kind of feel like a father figure, or an authority. Maybe that’s wrong, I don’t know. I’ve been in positions and seen where people have done things that I wouldn’t have done and it got them into trouble.”
By the time we had wrapped up our conversation, we were pulling up to the gate at Zion. I knew I felt better going out on adventures with Bo, he was always safe, patient, and was the consummate guide. Whether for ego or not, when you go out with him, it comes across like an act of service. He almost always goes first, does the sketchiest climbs in order to help others, and is always giving advice about how to stay safe. Our mission to reach the summit of Lady Mountain was a success. It was a cool, beautiful spring day. Bo had brought a canteen of wine that got passed around the group as we took in the breathtaking 360 degree view on top of what seemed like the stairway to heaven. We didn’t see a soul the entire trip until we got back down by the Emerald Pools.
I considered myself lucky to be counted one of Bo’s friends, and to get the chance to spend time with him. Bo is funny, unselfish with his knowledge, giving with his time, and is one of the most caring and sensitive men I know. It is said that we care about what we invest in; if that’s true, Bo invests in people and for that, he feels deeply for them, and they for him. I am certain that on any given weekend, Bo gets half a dozen invitations by people wishing to spend a day with him, and you are lucky if you get to. If our treasure is where our heart is, Bo’s is the outdoor community that he serves, spends time with, and searches for and rescues. It has been his life’s work, and because of it, he is deservedly an icon in southern Utah.
Originally published in St. George News
OPINION – Despite what anyone’s leanings may be with regards to the situation in Bunkerville, Nev., it is widely agreed upon that it is anything but over. What lies in store for Cliven Bundy is likely a host of state and federal charges ranging from contempt of court to, possibly, domestic terrorism. Don’t shoot the messenger.
In the meantime, while armed militia members stand watch over the area, we have learned that perhaps the most effective measure yet to be employed in helping all to understand just exactly what Bundy’s stance is, is to give him a microphone and just let him be himself.
The only thing more surprising than his repeated racially-charged statements were the people surprised that he said them at all. Perhaps more disturbing, however, are those who insist there was nothing wrong with his views.
For example, in a Facebook thread discussion between me and St. George resident Paul Gooch, he said:
“Should I be scared to admit that I didn’t find what Cliven said offensive?
He is literally not speaking the same language that everyone else is using. It is easy to see how spin-doctors can build racism into his comments – whether accidentally or intentionally.
But still … what kind of America do we live in when a guy has to live in terror of saying what he thinks in his own way? The reason anyone needs a PR person to manage their public pronouncements is because we are terrified of today’s PC police!”
Apparently not everyone is afraid to speak their mind. Continuing, Gooch said:
“Too bad he speaks the homespun language of a Bunkerville rancher.
Now even some of the high profile people who were standing with him for the right reasons (government abuse) are turning tail – ‘skeeeeered to death’ that they might be tainted by charges of racism – like it is some kind of pox that can be transmitted through mere thought-association.”
Gooch and I continued our conversation off-Facebook and agreed that we do not see Bundy’s comments in the same light. I suspect that Gooch’s viewpoint adequately encompasses the predominant mindset of the community here in Southern Utah.
Listen to my colleague Bryan Hyde, a local radio show talk show host. He referred to black people as a “victim class” who needed to “get off the plantation.” To his credit, he meant it in the best possible way.
Or maybe we could even look at the local government’s re-designation of Martin Luther King Day to “Human Rights Day.”
Nothing offensive or racist there, right? Wrong. Painfully, and simply wrong.
If you do not understand the implications of such statements, if you dismiss them at face value as innocuous, unfortunate and harmless, you are part of the problem, let me assure you.
But to the broader picture at hand, the one I will readily acquiesce to – that the point of the Bundy matter in Bunkerville has been diverted (seriously, what the heck was Bundy doing going so far off topic?) – isn’t there perhaps a contextual similarity to the attitude he displays in both instances, his stand against the Bureau of Land Management and his racist comments?
Racism is steeped in a mindset of elitism and entitlement. It is a mentality derived from a narcissistic attitude of superiority that sees oneself as exempt from ordinary rules of conduct.
Rules of conduct like, say: Paying federal grazing fees? Obeying federal court orders? Choosing to not rally idiots with rifles in an attempt to stand-down federal officers and agents carrying out federally adjudicated and lawful orders? Not giving a darn really about anyone but themselves and their own personal interests?
It is asserted by many that they do not necessarily stand with Bundy’s methods but they can allow that his principles were marked with those of a patriot and a revolutionary, ones like those of the Founding Fathers.
I contend, however, that the animosity toward government that exceeds the boundaries of common sense is becoming its own distinct and recognizable movement. Its creed is a loose deference to a nuance of principles only a select few claim to understand; as if, somehow, they channel the founders and understand the law better than the rest of us. They fail to understand, that were the founders alive today, they might have answered Bundy and his followers with force for sedition.
You see, had England capitulated to the demands of the founders for representation, that is to say, had England given them land, title, and lordship or perhaps representation with seats in British Parliament, I would venture the war would have been averted.
The founders were intelligent, educated men. They were not rebels looking for a cause but rather were moral men with a truly moral cause and saw war as a last resort.
The fact is, no matter what you think about government overreach, and you may well be right, we have representation and we must use it.
Were the founders to counsel their countrymen today, they would say so. I am sure of it.
The battle over land use in Bunkerville is not the first in this struggle. The Sagebrush Rebellion is the precursor and judicial outcomes have set precedence that is prudent and relevant to this case.
Utah prepares itself to spend $3 million of school trust funds to wage a similar and futile lawsuit, but at least they are fighting what they perceive to be bad law, in the courts.
But armed rebellion?
Perhaps if you don’t believe me, you should read about the Whiskey Rebellion under Washington’s presidency and ask yourself if the causes are similar. Washington, after much consternation, put that rebellion down with force.
And today, make no mistake about it, Cliven Bundy is looking straight down the barrel of a similar fate, as are many of his supporters.
But this really is, like many who support Bundy say, about more than just cattle.
It is about the West. If there is one thing that has long characterized the West, it is that it changes. Native American lands gave way, the buffalo gave way, fenceless grazing gave way, homesteading gave way, and so forth.
Whether or not any of us like or are ready for change, today it is about the changing landscape of priorities in this country.
The last remnants of the pioneers of westward expansion are beginning to give way to today’s progress and what will be the new West: A West where the leading agendas will be renewable energy, recreational use, water conservancy, and ecological and environmental preservation.
And therein lies the rub: national agendas conflicting with local agendas – whether those of a rancher, county or state. When it comes to the characteristic and ever-changing nature of the West, this really is not anything new and no measure of lawlessness or violence will change it.
Again, don’t shoot the messenger.
See you out there.
Not just a New West, but the New American as exemplified with cowboys and indians protesting the XL Pipeline: The Nation, On Cliven Bundy’s ancestral rights: http://www.thenation.com/article/179561/cliven-bundys-ancestral-rights#
“Knowledge is a weapon Jon. Arm yourself well before you ride into battle.”
~ George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
If the Cliven Bundy standoff has show us anything, it is that a strain of fringe, anti-federalists not only exist in the county, but are willing to act at the least provocation. The resort to violence by rural people in Nevada is not an anomaly and is not an isolated incident. The unrest, angst, and itch for violence against federal agents and employees is always there under the surface. This county has a long and inglorious history of such factions and groups, and though not limited to the West, they seem to be unduly present not only in rural communities but by leaders and politicians hankering to wrest control of public lands from the Federal Government. There were outcries over the BLM’s show of force in April toward the ranchers and militias, of their preparation for violence, but it will be shown that the BLM had good reason to come prepared. Their good faith effort in 2012 to round up Bundy’s cattle without weapons was called off due to violent threats, which as will be shown, have been real and acted upon in the past.
Anti-federalism groups, or Constitutional vigilantes, have a long and colorful history, beginning with the most notorious faction, the KKK followed up by the Posse Comitatus who put the hit out on the Federal Government (6). These organizations go beyond the mainstream into a fanatical fringe that all have a few things in common. First, they do not have a just or moral cause (though they think they do). Their defiance and acts of violence largely stem from disagreement with the mainstream on specific laws, such as gun restrictions, income taxes, the Federal Reserve, the 14th Amendment, and public lands regulation. Second, they believe that the federal government acts in opposition to the Constitution and believe that they not only are protecting and upholding the values set forth in the Constitution, but that they are the ones who truly understand it. Third, they have a very narrow view of which parts of the Constitution they deem worthy of protection and interpretation, and they largely ignore all case law and precedent set between the time of the writing of the Constitution and the present day. And Forth, they act outside of the law.
It is a dangerous mixture of narcissism, hatred, and ignorance. The most alarming aspect is that while they cloak themselves in the flag and Constitution, they shred the very principles behind them at the same time. We could rightfully dismiss Cliven Bundy as an ego-maniac with a hero complex, but the problem goes further than his cause célèbre when he takes on followers willing to do his bidding through acts and threats of violence. While it is true that the government can act outside of Constitutional principles or can be corrupt, the mainstream fights it within the confines of the law. Sometimes they win and sometimes they lose, but while they are fighting bad law, the way they go about it shows respect for the rule of law in the process. It is the right and patriotic way to keep out-of-control government in check. There is much to complain about in regard to the legal system and how it works, but allowing radical militias, who interpret the Constitution through an arbitrary and selfish lens, is worse.
The first such case of a militia taking up arms against the United States Government was a group of whiskey distillers in Pennsylvania in 1791 in response to a tax on whiskey. Treasury Secretary Hamilton needed to find a steady source of revenue for the fledgling government and so he proposed an excise tax on whiskey produced in the United States. Congress instituted the levy in 1791 (1). The whiskey distillers, like modern day Cliven Bundy and his supporters, didn’t like the tax. In response, the hostile farmers “attacked and destroyed the home of a tax inspector (1).” The hostility grew and threatened to spread to other states. At the time, the government was weak and could not withstand this kind of insubordination if it was to succeed. George Washington was President at the time and Hamilton advised him to send in the military. George Washington did not take his advice and first sent in negotiators, but they failed to resolve the issue with the farmers. When diplomacy failed, President Washington sent in a force of 13,000 militia troops, led by Hamilton and Virginia governor Henry Lee, to put the rebellion down in western Pennsylvania. According to Richard H. Kohn, in his article The Washington Administration’s Decision to Crush the Whiskey Rebellion,
“One of the fundamental questions raised in the debates over the Constitution in 1787 and 1788 was on what foundation the ultimate authority of government rested. When they discussed the problem men who differed over the Constitution as much as James Madison and Richard Henry Lee agreed that government was based either on law or on force and that law was the only firm basis on which to build a healthy republican society. And they also agreed that once the law failed, either through individual disobedience or riot and rebellion, force would be necessary to restore order and compel citizens to fulfill their social obligations (2).”
While the U.S. government is no longer a fledgling one, the similarities between the whiskey farmers in the 1790s and modern day Cliven Bundy and his supporters are striking. The only real difference is the amount of force used by the government to quell the Bunkerville insurrection. But the question about the breakdown of law and the use of force is still relevant. The prospect of force being the final arbiter of justice is truly frightening because it indicates that the rule of law has been breached. This breach of law is the chipping away at the foundation on which this country rests; contrary to the popular and romantic view that it is based on peoples’ willingness to rise up against the government. Furthermore, it puts everyone at risk, including the rebels themselves. The very laws that they are undermining are also protecting them against a real Wild West showdown, not just between them and the government, but by other citizens willing to play by their rules. What is truly shocking, however, is how prevalent this rural defiance is and how it has been allowed, some might even say encouraged, to go unchallenged for so long in the state of Nevada.
There is a certain romanticism attached to the West, and it holds throughout the country, not just in the West. There is some reason for it. When the West was being settled, it really was wild. Justice was largely held in the streets and tough, hardscrabble people had to find a way to survive in what was an unruly part of the country lacking law and order. Against all the odds, tenacious individuals managed to tame the land, endure the lack of law and order, and settle here. Those who came here had to rely on themselves in part because the government was not established enough to do it. But with that self-reliance and individualism came an almost inherited attitude of entitlement to be free from all restraints, regulations, or rules, including from the government. Of course when the government did grow in strength and capability, the rough and tumble settlers of the West viewed it as the new and ever encroaching monster they must now face, and it fit well in their Wild West worldview. In fact, when the Bundy showdown began, the phrase, “It’s about to get western down there,” was touted repeatedly by Bundy supporters. It appeared that these people were excited at the prospect of going toe-to-toe with the government and felt they were following in a glorious tradition started by none other than, the Founding Fathers.
On Independence Day in 2000 a group of roughly 300 people in the small town of Jarbridge Nevada took up shovels and headed to a narrow road on federal land that had been closed by the Forest Service in 1995 after a flood had washed it out. The Forest Service determined that the construction to repair the road would cause more harm than good by endangering the river’s dwindling population of bull trout via erosion. “Long angered by federal restrictions on everything from water access to grazing rights, county officials and anti-federalists across the West seized upon the obscure road as a symbol of their discontent. “We will rebuild the road, come hell or high water,” declared Tony Lesperance, an Elko County commissioner. The demonstrators, met by dozens of law enforcement officers and media cameras, paraded down Main Street, brandishing their shovels and singing The Star Spangled Banner (3).” Due to the media being there, and people excitedly giving interviews, it got a lot of coverage.
“It was a classic fin-de-siècle American protest: a staged telegenic moment steeped in Western symbolism,” according to Mother Jones reporter Florence Williams.
But that’s not the worst of it. According to Williams, Elko County Nevada has earned the reputation as the most lawless county in the West. “In 1995, on the same day a bomb exploded in a Forest Service building across the state in Carson City, a detonated pipe bomb was discovered in an outhouse at a campground near Elko, the county seat (3).” On August 5, 1995 according to the AP, “A bomb exploded under a van at the home of a U.S. Forest Service ranger whose office was shattered by a pipe bomb four months earlier. The bomb was either thrown or placed underneath the van of District Ranger Guy Pence, parked in the driveway of his house. The explosion destroyed the van and broke a few windows in Pence’s home. Pence was on a horseback trip in central Nevada but his wife and three children were in the house in a quiet residential neighborhood on the south side of Nevada’s capital city.”
Luckily, none of them were hurt. This happened around the time that the Unabomber killed the head of the California Forestry Association and the Oklahoma City bombings occurred (Timothy McVeigh was associated with the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an anti-federal movement, that showed up to support Cliven Bundy, among others). The bombing at Pence’s office and home were the first on a federal facility or employee in Nevada since Halloween 1993, when a bomb was tossed onto the roof of the federal Bureau of Land Management’s state headquarters in Reno. It is shocking to consider that rural ranchers were so upset over land issues that they would risk killing innocent federal employees trying to do their jobs.
“Federal employees and their families have been harassed and threatened by local residents, prompting some to resign. Snowmobilers venture into protected habitats, ranchers ‘trespass’ their cows on pastures set aside as off-limits, and residents take firewood from federal lands and forests without permits. In Jarbidge, even local politicians have abandoned civility and due process. Two county commissioners feuding over floor time at a public meeting had to be physically separated by the sheriff, and the former publisher of the local paper expressed his civic spirit by shooting an officer’s dog in the middle of town (3).” I recently spoke with a former Forest Service employee who worked in Nevada who said,
“It was very isolated and we were warned from the beginning that most of the people in town were not fond of the Forest Service or BLM. We were the “outsiders”. We were advised to live in the “compound” (government housing). We didn’t eat at the local café because we were told that they would mess with our food. Some people were nice to us but not many. So, we USFS employees just stuck to ourselves mostly. The residents had more disdain for federal law enforcement officers, though. And, there were certain families or individuals that were more notorious about it than others. I would say that most people were just indifferent to us, though. In fact, we never locked our front door. It was a very odd situation. On the one hand, we knew the political history of the area and who the more vocal main players were. We were always careful and safe, but I never felt like I was in any real danger while we lived there. It was just understood that certain residents got away with certain things because they knew that there was little that we could do about it. We were just too short staffed and had too large of an area to cover. It was more an atmosphere of veiled threats and intimidation.
That being said, there were certain people who stirred the pot quite a bit. Wayne Hage and his wife, former US Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, were the ones who informed my husband of his illegitimacy as an armed federal law enforcement officer and that he was a trespasser. I remember sitting in their beautiful ranch home and listening to them smugly recite their ideology and attempt to justify it by quoting parts of the US Constitution.
Another infamous character was Dick Carver of Nye County. He was a former county commissioner and Sagebrush rebel who was known to carry a copy of the US Constitution in his shirt pocket. He took it upon himself to use his bulldozer to open up a closed FS road. Also, the Nye county sheriff’s office was well known to support Carver and his ideology. They were openly uncooperative with any federal law enforcement efforts.”
But worse than that, they were and are undermining their very own State Constitution. Their paradoxical and contradictory stance is astounding to the reasonable mind, especially when assertions of illegal federal law enforcement within the state is brought up. Article 1, Section 2 of the Nevada Constitution:
All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for the protection, security and benefit of the people; and they have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it. But the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States; and no power exists in the people of this or any other State of the Federal Union to dissolve their connection therewith or perform any act tending to impair, subvert, or resist the Supreme Authority of the government of the United States. The Constitution of the United States confers full power on the Federal Government to maintain and Perpetuate its existence, and whensoever any portion of the States, or people thereof attempt to secede from the Federal Union, or forcibly resist the Execution of its laws, the Federal Government may, by warrant of the Constitution, employ armed force in compelling obedience to its Authority (7).
Why is this happening? Furthermore, why are politicians promoting this type of behavior instead up upholding the laws of the land and the state? Part of the answer is that there is an ideological shift taking place in the West, at a national level, from the extractive industries to an increased emphasis on protecting the environment. As these national priorities have shifted, the rural way of life has slowly declined and has left many feeling insignificant and neglected. Because most of the growth in Nevada has happened in Las Vegas and Reno, many rural people feel left out of the loop. Perhaps they feel that violence and rebellion is their only option to get heard, but in the continued conflict over how to deal with the change and growing divide over land use, violence and outright defiance to the law is doing more to hurt their cause – even if they have a worthy one. Furthermore, any reasonable person with a sympathetic or willing ear will disappear when this road is taken.
“In Nevada, resentment over the land dates back to the state’s founding. Settlers had expected to take possession of much of the land after the territory was admitted to the Union in 1864. But to the dismay of miners, ranchers, and loggers, most of the state remained in the public domain, and millions of acres were eventually preserved as national forests or placed under the direction of the federal Bureau of Land Management. The deep-seated seething came to a head in 1977. Angered by federal moves to increase fees for ranchers who grazed livestock on public lands and to set aside millions of acres as wilderness areas, the Nevada legislature backed a legal challenge to claim most of the federal land. Other Western states quickly followed suit, launching a regional movement that became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion (3).”
The Sagebrush Rebellion did have rural support and was fought by politicians, but ultimately a federal judge ruled against them. Much of the bravado and angst is egged on by politicians who may gain political capital, but who do not feel the national pinch that comes in response to such rebellions. “Federal ownership of western lands powerfully shapes the regional economy and society. Along with aridity, it is perhaps the defining characteristic of the West. Though a national park can be a source of pride; most federal land ownership (especially BLM jurisdiction) has always been a politically attractive whipping boy for western politicians (5).”
One such politician was Richard H. Bryan, who used the cause as a stepping stone to higher office. He argued before the court that Nevada, along with other states, had an expectancy upon admission into the Union that the unappropriated, unreserved and vacant lands within their borders would be disposed of by patents to private individuals or by grants to the States and that federal control of lands within western states’ borders prevented those states from standing on an equal footing with other states, as required by the Constitution. U.S. District Court Judge Reed cited the Property Clause within the Constitution and ruled against him. But like Nevada before, states such as Utah and Montana are still willing to gamble with the opportunity to successfully fail and further chip away at the harmony that law and knowledge of the law provide (5).
In the battle in Jarbridge over the Forest Service road, Republican state assemblyman John Carpenter and other elected officials were leading the charge (among many before it). Elko County claimed that it, not the federal government, owned South Canyon Road under an obscure federal statute dating from 1866, known as R.S. 2477. The statute essentially guaranteed settlers rights-of-way across federal land. When the Forest Service failed to repair the road after the flood, the County Commission decided to do it on its own, without bothering to obtain the appropriate permits. After the county had already filled in 900 feet of wetlands and changed the course of the Jarbidge River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection got an injunction against the county for violating the Clean Water Act. In 1999, Carpenter and two of his allies — attorney Grant Gerber and county GOP chairman O.Q. Chris Johnson — organized a group to reopen the road. Threatened with a federal restraining order, the men turned back, but they continued to spur on the Shovel Brigade (3).
A federal district judge ordered Elko County and the Forest Service into mediation to resolve their dispute over the road. After 100 days, the two sides reached a proposed settlement that gave the county essentially everything it wanted: a nice new road farther away from the fish, paid for by the feds. The agency even agreed to give the county the authority to maintain the road in the future. But the agreement stopped short of explicitly stating that the county “owned” the road. That wasn’t enough to satisfy Carpenter and many county officials, even though the county’s own negotiators had hammered out the terms. The County Commission refused to sign the settlement (3). This refusal to compromise is a consistent trend amongst such radicals, as we saw when Cliven Bundy refused to cooperate and demanded all law enforcement officers hand over the guns, the government disband the BLM and NPS, and that gates be torn down at National Parks.
Such actions and bravado are exasperating to citizens and county officials who are fed up with the anti-federalists. According to Williams, Karen Dredge, who retired after 17 years as Elko County clerk, pointed out how nobody stepped forward to help underwrite the county’s failed lawsuit over rancher Don Duval’s water rights. “The county is broke,” says Dredge. “We were told to cut all our departments’ budgets, and they want to fight a cause that really strays from county business. Some of our commissioners are activists, not leaders. It’s a room full of the same radical people with the same radical words, and they want us to foot the bill.” In Elko County, the anti-federal attitude comes from the top. In the late 1990s the district attorney drafted a public service announcement advocating discrimination against Forest Service employees. “This message is brought to you by the Elko County Commission, who encourages you to let the Forest Service know what you think about this by not cooperating with them,” the draft read. “Don’t sell goods or services to them until they come to their senses.” The commission did not act on the district attorney’s advice, but hostilities became so great that Gloria Flora, supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe, resigned from her job in 1999, saying she feared for the safety of her employees (4).
This sort of rhetoric can be heard around St. George and on the Stand with the Bundy’s Facebook page encouraging people to refuse service to federal employees. Several federal employees at the St. George Field Office, who had nothing to do with Bundy’s roundup, got enough threats that they were sent home. It is people in positions of authority, whether they are church leaders, media types, or politicians, who are culpable if not flat out guilty, in promoting this destructive attitude and lawlessness. But they are not the ones who will pay. They may get a pat on the back from their fellow church goers, or their buddies, or gain some political clout, but once it’s over, they will go back to their regular jobs, homes, and life while the rural community suffers the backlash. Some of those local politicians include Utah Senator Mike Lee (who ran against Senator Bennett on none other than the issue of public lands) and Governor Herbert (suing the Federal Government for public lands and access roads), the Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, and Governor Sandoval in Nevada.
But political maneuvering aside, this really hurts rural communities and people. The trend across the West is changing, whether people like it or not. It is going to take smart people to find fair and equitable solutions, not ignorant people bent on working out their differences through violence. People in rural communities need to be included in the march of progress and helped economically rather than left behind once they have helped greedy politicians move up the political ladder. According to Williams, “Many residents fear that the alpha-male approach to conflict resolution prevents the local economy from diversifying beyond casinos and gold mining. This is certainly not good for economic development, worries Glen Guttry, an Elko city councilman. Some people are afraid to move in because of all the controversy (3).”
Seething anger, conflict, and a stubborn hold on the past will kill any attempt at a flourishing economy for rural communities by scaring away investors, businesses, and people who might otherwise be interested. I once spoke with a rancher who was bemoaning snotty east coast college graduates that come out to the West and tell him how the range works. I suggested that he offer internships so that they could learn what he was talking about. He mused on that. I would posit that rural people need to take time off to get degrees in biology, geology, law enforcement, environmental science, and law, etc., and then go back to their communities better equipped to help them. Perhaps even get jobs within land management agencies where their unique perspective can shed light on situations that would otherwise not get it.
As old Marshal Cogburn said in True Grit, “If you don’t have no schooling you are up against it in this country, sis. That is the way of it. No sir, that man has no chance any more. No matter if he has got sand in his craw, others will push him aside, little thin fellows that have won spelling bees back home.” Might and grit will only get you so far, and will do more for opportunistic politicians than the regular citizen. It appears that Nevada is as lawless as ever. It is time for those with sway and power to be the voice of reason and help the people of rural Nevada transition to the New West with respect and dignity and encourage rural Nevadans to give dignity, respect, and fair treatment to the federal employees caught in the middle. Smarter not harder comes to mind. Cliven Bundy is in the limelight right now, but it won’t last, and the consequences of his actions may turn out to be more toxic to the rural individual than the Federal Government ever could be.
For more history on the Posse Comitatus that started during the reconstruction of the South, the Sovereigns Movement, and Cliven Bundy’s link to them and his stance on sheriffs being the final authority, etc.
(1) PBS Whiskey Rebellion: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/peopleevents/pande22.html
(2) Richard H. Kohn, The Washington Administration’s Decision to Crush the Whiskey Rebellion: http://arch.neicon.ru/xmlui/bitstream/handle/123456789/4145794/JournalofAmericanHistoryjah_59_3_59-3-567.pdf?sequence=1
(3) Mother Jones, The Shovel Rebellion: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2001/01/shovel-rebellion
(5) Story of Kleppe v. New Mexico: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1454&context=facpub
(6) A long history of armed Constitutional vigilantism predates Bundy Ranch: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/04/bundy_ranch_vigilantism_going_mainstream_the_idea_that_the_constitution.2.html
(7) The Irony of Cliven Bundy’s Unconstitutional Stand, by Matt Ford: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/04/the-irony-of-cliven-bundys-unconstitutional-stand/360587/
The Desert Globemallow is my favorite desert flower. Its appearance marks the point at which the cool weather retreats and the heat returns. The landscape butting up against the roads is aflame in an orange flush as the perennial plants have burst into bloom over night it seems. When I see them, and other flowering plants at this time of year, I am always brought back to my all-time favorite quote by Edward Abbey:
“The wind will not stop. Gusts of sand swirl before me, stinging my face. But there is still too much to see and marvel at, the world very much alive in the bright light and wind, exultant with the fever of spring, the delight of morning. Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places, but scattered abroad in sparseness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”
Perhaps we could learn something about how to inhabit the desert from the way that Mother Nature has already arranged it.
What Palmer’s Penstemon lacks in scent it more than makes up for in beauty. It is a strange mix between an orchid and a hollyhock. Some compare it to a snapdragon, but it is so much more refined and elegant than the common snapdragon. Their sweet grace adds a rare feminine touch to the rugged and rough desert, offering a cool reprieve for the eyes when scanning the hot landscape.
Desert Cliff Rose is the ugly duckling of the desert and is another one of my favorites. It is like the desert version of the lilac. It is a gnarled, twisted, and barely noticed shrub most of the year. But in the spring, when it blooms, it produces the sweetest, most astounding scent you have ever smelled. I describe it like this: it smells the way that banana cream pie tastes. If that makes any sense. In my mind, it represents the stages of age – youth, maidenhood, and the wise old sage all wrapped into one. Like Persephone who escapes the underworld half of the year, the blooms of this plant are fleeting, but you cannot miss them if you catch their scent. It is shocking to experience when you look at the shrub that holds them. The desert holds so many paradoxical mysteries.