A group of horseback riders and grassroots activists rode into Washington, D.C., last week after traveling nearly 2,800 miles from the California coast to raise awareness about the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to revoke their grazing rights and the federal government’s extensive ownership of land and natural resources in the West.
The group, which calls itself the Grass March Cowboy Express, departed from Bodega Bay, Calif., for a transcontinental ride to deliver petitions and personal testimony about abuses by the federal government in states such as Nevada, Utah and Kansas. The riders often traveled 12 to 15 hours per day along state highways to ensure their punctual arrival in the nation’s capital 20 days later.
Although small in size—only 11 riders went the whole distance—the group arrived in Washington with substantial demands.
“I was born and bred to be a rancher and to have your life taken from you, they just shouldn’t have that power,” Eddyann Filippini, a fourth-generation rancher from Battle Mountain, Nev., told The Daily Signal.
According to the ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management has improperly restricted their access to private and publicly owned land and denied them the opportunity to graze livestock on land they own or lease from the federal government, despite having grazing permits from the agency to do so.
“It’s regulation without representation. It’s tyranny is what it is,” said Filippini.
In some cases, the Bureau of Land Management’s sudden decision to reduce the acreage originally available for grazing cattle has created dilemmas for ranchers.
“They closed two of our allotments last year and one of them was 97 percent private, the other was 56 percent private,” said Filippini. “We had to remove 900 head of cows in June 2013 and try to find a new pasture for them. With the stress of moving them from somewhere they knew to somewhere they didn’t know, we lost calves. It was awful.”
Grant Gerber, the rancher, attorney and county commissioner in Elko County, Nev., who led the cross-country march, says the government’s decision to restrict access to federal land where ranchers hold grazing permits is based on claims that ranchers have already grazed it down to dirt. In May, Gerber organized a public tour of restricted lands where “the grass was 18 inches to two feet high,” according to Deseret News of Salt Lake City.
According to the Bellingham, Wash., Herald, the Bureau of Land Management says its decisions have been made in accordance with standard procedure and it’s taking precautions considering Nevada is facing its third year of serious drought.
Throughout the march, Gerber carried petitions in a leather saddlebag that called for the dismissal of the agency’s Nevada district manager Doug Furtado, who authorized the restriction of ranchers’ access to their designated grazing allotments and privately owned land and allegedly infringed on their water rights.
Gerber also carried petitions from local Indians concerned with an increased threat of wildfire enhanced by the overgrown grass from reduced grazing. He also brought to Washington petitions from counties in Utah and Kansas where ranchers and farmers have been harmed by legislation such as the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts.
“These federal regulations are threatening the health, safety and welfare of citizens,” said Robert Gordon, senior adviser for strategic outreach at The Heritage Foundation.
Bruce Clegg, a county commissioner in Utah who serves on the American Lands Council board with Gerber, joined the Cowboy Express when it reached his state and rode alongside his wife and children to Washington, D.C.
“Several weeks ago, our county commission passed a resolution on our issues: wild horses in our county that are being allowed to multiply and take over our ranges and our issues with roads being closed for people to access both private and public lands,” said Clegg. “We got that and petitions from other counties delivered in the bag.”
Clegg also carried a copy of Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act, a law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert in March 2012 that “requires the United States to extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to public lands to the state on or before Dec. 31, 2014.”
In states such as Utah and Nevada, where total federal land acreage as of 2012 amounts to 66.5 percent and 81.1 percent, respectively, supporters of the Transfer of Public Lands Act and similar legislation have claimed that transferring land back to the states will allow states to generate revenue from the land now owned by the federal government.
Following their meetings with various congressional aides, the riders joined staff from the offices of Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Reps. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Mark Amodei, R-Nev., outside the U.S. Capitol for a lunch of barbecued brisket and beans.
Filippini said despite its complexity, this issue goes beyond the West and should concern all Americans
“The consumer doesn’t think they have any skin in the game, but when they go to try and buy food and the farmer’s water is being taken, the rancher’s land is being taken and they can’t graze, then everyone realizes they’ve got skin in the game,” said Filippini.