Vin Suprynowicz

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Driving Them Off the Land
Eviction of Western Ranchers 'Amounts to a War of Religions'

by Vin Suprynowicz

(This is Part II of a two-part article. Go to Part I)

JAN. 28, 2001

Tim Findley, former chief investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and assistant editor for Rolling Stone, who for more than a year has been covering the Gardner case for Reno-based Range magazine (for a sample copy, dial 1-800-range4U), says the struggle between ranchers like Cliff Gardner and Clark County's Cliven Bundy on one side — federal regulators and "land managers" on the other — amounts to a war of religions.

Gardner and his Clark County counterpart Cliven Bundy — one of only two ranchers remaining out of more than 50 only a generation ago — are Mormons, Findley points out. They believe that taming the wilderness is a noble cause, and raising their children close to the land has been good for their families and their society.

"On the other side we have the arrogant practitioners of an environmental religion [emphasis TYSK], endeavoring to use federal force — in blatant violation of the First Amendment — to 'establish' and impose across the West the religion of environmentalism, which holds that cattle — and lumbering and mining, for that matter — are unnatural desecrations of nature's temple, a wilderness from which all human activity must be banished so that the lands can be held in permanent trust in their wild splendor."

I mentioned to Findley the fervor with which Cliff Gardner will present his slide show at the drop of a hat — it's the first thing he did when I arrived at the Slash-J ranch for a visit over New Year's weekend, the ranch's muddy turn-in looking like market day in the county seat as a free-lancer for Range magazine also showed up to take some photos of Cliff for the February issue and got offered a chair — showing the photographic evidence he's gathered over the decades, before-and-after photos demonstrating that the lands are in better shape where they've been grazed by cattle then where they've been fenced off for years as sterile "wilderness."

"Cliff has more than anecdotal evidence for his claims," Findley responds. "He's been out there taking pictures for more than 20 years and he had built a very convincing case. Cliff contends these forage plants evolved to need large ungulates to graze them, whether that be cattle or some other animal, and the cattle are a vital part of the ecosystem. They can demonstrate that. Where the cattle graze you see an enormous beneficial growth of the game species, the deer herds and so forth. Where they fence the cattle off the land you see the land go to waste; you see a build-up in fuel so you get more and harsher range fires.

"It becomes a kind of matter of faith to these (government) people. They really don't understand what they're doing to destroy the lives of people with equally good hearts. The Nature Conservancy had grabbed off two-thirds of that land (near the Gardner Ranch in the Ruby Valley) and they desperately want Cliff's chunk. It's really extortion.

"With Cliven and Cliff you have the Mormon influence, and they're going up against an equally strong belief on the part of the government types in an environmental faith that all the cattle should be off the land and everything should be preserved. So what's underlying this is a really cynical kind of land grab and Cliff doesn't mention that much; I don't think he gives enough emphasis to the way the Nature Conservancy is behind all this, using everyone's good intention for a really cynical land grab."

I asked Findley what he expects to see in Judge McKibben's court on Feb. 21.

"McKibben isn't going to be kind. He isn't going to allow Cliff to present either his constitutional case or the environmental case he wants to present. I have a lot of sympathy for Cliff. People saying he's making a martyr of himself but I don't know, I think there's something else going on here. He used to have dinner with these guys; when he was a kid on the ranch the forest rangers would come visit his father and stay overnight at the ranch and Cliff really respected them and looked up to them, so I think there's a lot of personal disappointment now in the way they're acting and the fact they won't look at his evidence and listen to folks who have been on the land for generations and learned how to manage the land and are willing to share that knowledge; instead all you get from the federal side is arrogance.

Findley, the transplanted Californian, has been in Nevada for 10 years. "I came here looking for a place to raise a young son and moved to Fallon and got caught up in the water wars," he explains.

"Ranchers like Cliff remind me a lot more of the Black Panthers. Those were also people who tried to stand up for their rights but they were pushed around because they were minorities. I try to explain to my friends (back in California) that these ranchers are now being pushed around and terrorized and threatened with jail and the loss of their livelihoods for standing up for their rights in exactly the same way the Black Panthers were; I don't see any conflict between what we used to write about back then and what I'm doing now.

"What drew the Black Panthers to public attention is one day they went to Sacramento to the state capitol and walked around carrying shotguns, which it was perfectly legal for them to do. We didn't know then and we will never know whether they were loaded. But because they were all black and all dressed the same the police then started to terrorize them — they were all arrested, and the state terrorism against them began.

"The Black Panthers were never charged with robbing banks or anything like that. They said 'We have these rights,' and the state said, 'Not to exercise them when you're all black and you all dress the same, not to exercise them in this militaristic fashion.' So the police terrorized them. If you start with people like Cliff Gardner becoming political prisoners then that's when you're going to see more resistance and more real tragedy . They're saying we have constitutional rights and the government is saying well, you have to give up your livelihoods if you try to exercise those rights. ... I don't know what the others will do if they put Cliff Gardner in jail."

Does Findley think McKibben will jail Gardner?

"I think what McKibben will do is impose some kind of house arrest or some form of economic restraint that'll cripple what Cliff can do. I doubt he'll risk going so far as to put him in jail and give this movement its martyr and its political prisoner.

# # #

Spending a weekend at the Gardners' Slash-J ranch is like stepping back 40 years in time — except for the cordless phones, of course, and the fact that everyone in the household seems to have his or her own personal computer.

This city slicker was pretty proud of himself, rousing out of bed and brushing my teeth soon after first light. The dawn was barely breaking as I reached the kitchen ... to find half the household chatting about a proposed coyote hunt over the fast-cooling remains of breakfast. (Bunny-huggers can relax — our wily brothers sang back to Walt and Harry, but none loped near enough to come to harm.) Bertha graciously handed me the last of the sausage and fried eggs, though she warned "I can't guarantee they're still warm." City boys: sleeping in till almost dawn.

By 10:30 the woman of the house had finished doing her accounts at the kitchen table and moved on to preparing lunch — three huge hot meals being the order of each day. She chatted with me as I jotted a few notes at the table, but not about her elder son — though the Gardners are obviously proud of Charley, the champion rodeo cowboy, whose trophies crowd the house till there's no place left to hang the huge poster for last summer's Reno rodeo, which featured a picture of Charley himself, on a bucking bronc.

No, as I made friends with the gray cat, sole survivor of a long-ago litter, Bertha fell to talking about her younger son Walt, who now bears the major load of helping his dad with the ranch, what with Charley being away on the rodeo circuit.

Walt is a big, healthy lad who not too long ago brought home a lovely bride with a 15-year-old stepdaughter, both of whom the Gardners treat as their own. The family shares stories of Walt and Charley racing each other "up the hill" behind the ranchhouse — the "hill" being one of the larger peaks in the 11,000-foot Ruby Mountains, which stretch both north and south outside the window and just across the road, as far as the eye can see.

"One day Charley says he ran up the hill so fast his heart stopped," Walt says with a smile.

"What did he do?" I asked.

"Oh, you just wait for it to start again."

Walt guided me and Harry Pappas on an impromptu late afternoon drive through 7,200-foot Harrison Pass, spotting at least 80 deer through Harry's binoculars — only three or four of them bucks, and among them only one which would have been suitable for harvest, by Walt's standards — they prefer to wait till a deer's antlers are over 20 inches.

Walt, in his element, spotted a set of lion tracks from the moving car. As we emerged to join him, he told us how long ago the 150-pound lioness had crossed the road.

"Now, how do you know she's a female?" asked a skeptical Harry.

"Well, do you see any marks where his balls were dragging?" answered Walt, his sly smile following his punchline by a few seconds, as usual.

Walt speaks offhand of a hunter who — it turned out — couldn't hit a tree at 50 yards with either his rifles or his guides', emptying the magazines of two rifles before one particularly lucky mulie managed to get away unharmed. He recalled another fellow for whom Walt had worked all day, positioning him for a clear shot at a trophy buck.

"Now, in a minute here, there are four deer going to come over that ridge," Walt recalls instructing the fellow. "I've been watching them, and if you'll shoot the second deer, that one's your trophy."

Sure enough, the four bucks soon came strolling up over the rise, the second of the four sporting an enormous rack of well over 20 inches.

The hunter fired, and the third deer in the group — a legal prey but with a pitiful six-inch rack — tumbled down the slope.

"I got it ! I got it!" the hunter yelled, literally leaping up and down.

"Yep, you shot it," Walt recalls, deadpan. "But you shot the wrong deer. I said to shoot the second one."

"That WAS the second one!" the hunter insisted.

"Counting from the front ... or the back?" Walt asked.

"From the back!"

His mom is doubly proud of Walt, who hires out to guide lion hunts in the mountains, speaking with awe of old-time hunters who were known to "walk down a cat." (While mountain lions can demonstrate awesome bursts of speed for short periods, a man and a dog can exhaust them till they have to either tree or turn, if they can just demonstrate the persistence — and endurance — to stay on their trail for enough days and nights in the frozen mountains.)

Bertha's pride in her second son comes in part from the fact things didn't look so good for him when he started out in life.

"He was born allergic to milk, and they didn't think he was going to make it. They handed him back to me in that hospital in Reno and said 'We've done all we can for him; you need to take him home now.' "

As farm folks, the Gardners had no medical insurance. The clear message was that there was little else the doctors could — or would — do. Nature was supposed to take its course with Little Walt at home, out of sight and out of mind. These things happen.

"My pediatrician said to put him on Coca-Cola. That was all he could tolerate, so we did. He's only alive today because of Coca-Cola." Later, more competent specialists in Salt Lake found the boy could indeed tolerate soy milk, though the folks at the Reno hospital had scoffed at the idea.

Walt was also born with club feet, which required surgery. "He didn't go to sleep without shoes on till he was nine years old," Bertha relates. "He still doesn't have the flexibility in his ankles that most people do. But he can jump up into the bed of a pickup truck from a standing start."

Walt also progressed slowly at school. Bertha decided to tutor him at home, long before most folks had even heard the term "home-schooling."

I believe there is a point to Bertha's story of her younger son turning out fine.

In some big city school, Walt could have slipped through the cracks — who knows, maybe even been doped up on Luvox or Ritalin before he was through. But not on the ranch. On the ranch, he was just Walt. On the ranch, where the physical demands of the work suited him, he grew to be strong, affable, confident — a man sought out and paid for his endurance and his special knowledge of the high country — a man with whom I'd gladly climb the mountain.

Farm and ranch families like the Gardners know that raising their children close to the land, in an environment where the harsh necessities of nature provide the best task-master, breeds sturdy men of strong character from even the most unpromising of material.

Bertha Gardner raised up strong sons. But it is also the land that raised these children — the very land from which the federals would now push the small ranching families — and all other Americans, truth be told.

I asked Cliff whether he thought his four kids — both girls have now married and moved out of the county — would have turned out as well if they'd been city-bred.

"Of course not. There's nothing like the opportunity for children when they're being raised, learning to be around cattle and do chores, to be around wood and land and iron at a young age, learning to work. That's probably the biggest reason that we stay in the ranching business, is that reason.

"That's why I want my grandkids around. ... It's pretty hard for a government agent to pull the wool over someone's eyes that's ever had to deal with fire and rain and wind and snow and all the other elements. My kids started working right at my side fighting fires, moving cattle at 11 or 12 years old. ...

"You don't just feed cows or chickens; you have to feed 'em right or they don't produce, and that a discipline that's learned, that's what they learn very young. Not like a bunch of bureaucrats who live in an imaginary, abstract world. We have to live in the real world. If we don't adhere to and work with nature we get cold pretty danged fast. Someone who works for the government because they've got a degree might get away with ignoring the truth, but anyone in the ranching business, we haven't been here for four generations because we ignored the truth and didn't work with nature."

"There's a philosophy of life that I have," adds Cliven Bundy of Mesquite, blue eyes sparkling beneath his Navajo silver hatband. "All these resources — the brush, the game — are put here for man's use. If you don't get any use out of it, what use is it? They say they want to protect the ecosystem, but man has to be part of the ecosystem. If man manages the predators so they only eat half the quail, and half are left for man, think of all the Dutch oven meals that makes. Everything here on the earth is made for man. This land would be better off if you let people use it and work it and improve it."

In the snide phrases of the coffeehouse environmentalist, these families that have worked from dawn to dusk for 130 years — no "calling in sick" when it's 30 below — are "welfare ranchers," taking advantage of the rest of us by leasing federal scrubland for "less than market rates" ... as though anyone else is chafing at the bit to pay good money to use this God-forsaken scrub, risking their savings against the bank, the sheriff, and the bankruptcy court.

I didn't see any welfare cases on the Gardner ranch.

# # #

Cliff's theme doesn't change as he's bidding me goodbye on Sunday morning — our route about to take us past miles and miles of the fenced off, cattle-free Franklin Lake "waterfowl sanctuary," where we manage to spot precisely one bird, a majestic blue heron.

"Thomas Jefferson's vision of happiness was being able to devote your life to your livelihood, not having to fight the government all the time. He said if we could get that kind of freedom the country would grow rich. ... Government is set up to resolve disputes between individuals, but now 90 percent of the disputes are between individuals and the state. Bertha and I are now enemies of the state. ...

"How can they say there's equity in these courts when they won't even answer my questions about jurisdiction and the Constitutionality of the statute? Those are the first questions they should answer, before they move on to anything else. Instead they say, 'You can bring that up on appeal, at the appellate level.' But what good does it do, even if the high court does finally remand these questions back to the lower court and tell them to answer them, if by that time I've expended my resources, and then I face another five or six years of working my way back up through the system? How can they say there's justice there? How can they say there's equity?"

Some say the wealth of America lies in her coal mines and her forests, her wheat fields and her factories. But they are wrong.

I have seen the wealth of America. It lies in the hearts of Cliff and Bertha Gardner. It lies in the spunk with which they will continue to fight their hopeless fight for as long as they draw breath. It lives in their naive faith that some judge, somewhere, will hear them out, answer their questions, acknowledge the limits of his jurisdiction, search his conscience, see justice done.

They're wrong, of course. There will be no justice. They will be beaten down, and driven from the land.

But the funny thing about their kind of faith and strength is that you cannot steal these things away. You cannot load them up in a trailer and alter their brands and claim them for your own.

Instead, when they have finished driving the Cliff and Bertha Gardners off this land, they will find the America they claim to be "protecting" ... is gone.

Sad Sam weeps


Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
His new book, Send in the Waco Killers is available at $24.95 postpaid from
Mountain Media, P.O. Box 271122, Las Vegas, Nev. 89127; or by dialing 1-800-244-2224

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28 jan 2001