Ranchers’ Rights Forgotten: Examining the Impact of the Basin and Range Monument

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Coal Valley, Nev. Photo Credit: Patrick Boyle

President Barack Obama proclaimed last month that the Basin and Range monument, a 704,000-acre area in Lincoln and Nye County, will be a national monument. The designation was made, using the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president power to declare “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal lands.

President Obama’s designation comes after Senators Harry Reid and Dina Titus failed to pass legislation to protect the area. This designation is the second one made by the president in eight months in Nevada.

The monument, which is 1,100 square miles, includes Garden Valley and Coal Valley. It is the location of “City,” a massive earthen sculpture created by Michael Heizer that is located in Hiko, Nev. It is also home to 20 ranching operations and private property of an additional 40 residents.

For many stakeholders and government officials in Nevada, the monument designation is disappointing and shocking because it does not take into consideration the opinions of the local public or their local efforts to protect the land.

“From our perspective, we kind of felt like it was difficult to ever even know what was moving or what was happening on this because the other side was not including the stakeholders,” says Paul Mathews, Lincoln County commissioner and county Farm Bureau president.

According to Mathews, the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners collected the opinions of ranchers and other stakeholders who would be affected by a designation. Their discussions also included the county water district and stakeholders interested in development of oil and gas.

Despite a strong concern from many individuals about the repercussions of a designation, proponents of the Basin and Range monument did little to work with local officials.

“They had their discussion in Las Vegas and other areas distant from us where we were never invited to that discussion,” Mathews says.

Governor Sandoval, members of Congress  and the Nevada Farm Bureau express similar concern for the way the designation was handled.

“The Basin and Range Monument designation bypassed Congress on a public lands issue in which Nevada and our entire delegation should have had a primary role in working collectively to build consensus as we have done successfully in the past,” Sandoval says.

“With the stroke of a pen, President Obama has bypassed Congress and unilaterally restricted the use of over 700,000 acres of Nevada’s public land. I have always been forthright with my position that any federal action to change access on our public lands should be discussed in an open and transparent process incorporating the input and support from local communities,” Senator Dean Heller says.

“Nevada Farm Bureau policy calls for the collaboration of livestock production, agriculture advocacy and other impacted groups to coordinate strategy on Nevada federal land issues. This decision eliminated local input of those individuals who are directly affected by the designation and who possess the expertise to make decisions about lands in Nevada,” Nevada Farm Bureau President Hank Combs says.

In addition to not taking local opinions into account, the designation fails to recognize county efforts to protect the lands and to promote a multiple use concept for all stakeholders involved.

“Lincoln County has worked for years with Senator Reid, with the BLM and with the federal government through the Lincoln County Land Act and other acts to do designations of wilderness area and all of the things that need protected for long periods of time here in the county,” Mathews says. “With all of the parties involved, we did everything that needed to be done to make those designations just a few short years ago. After that point and that act was passed, we thought that the rest of the resources from the county were secure from being designated.”

The United States Department of Interior claims that, “the proclamation will not affect grazing operations in the monument, including use of motorized vehicles, construction and maintenance of water infrastructure, and construction of fences and other range improvements relating to grazing operations.” Yet, ranchers and other stakeholders must work diligently to ensure that their livelihoods are still viable now that the designation has been made.

According to Mathews, a committee of stakeholders and government officials through the Caliente Bureau of Land Management office will manage the monument. This governing body is more ideal, he says, than having the Parks Department manage the land, but it still presents challenges for ranchers and private property owners.

“Ranchers are still discouraged about that because we might have one seat at the table, but there might be 15 other seats from the park foundation, wildlife protection groups and environmentalist groups from around the country that all have an opposing voice,” Mathews says. “They’re still worried about their ability to have the freedoms they need to manage their water systems and the cattle out there in the way that they need to.”

“A lot of times with the restrictions of the historical uses, the restrictions that apply to us are so far reaching that the ranchers’ hands are basically tied. They don’t have the freedom that they need to prepare water systems and move cattle in a timely matter and to do the things that they need to do to ranch effectively,” he adds.

Their concerns are warranted especially since similar monument designations in neighboring states have restricted ranchers and other stakeholders. In Utah in 1996, President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, using the Antiquities Act. At 1.8 million acres, it encompasses the largest land area of all United States national monuments.

Clinton’s designation promised to protect ranching similar to promises made regarding the Basin and Range National Monument. And despite this promise, ranchers faced restrictions due to the concern of environmental groups.

“It has always just been very restrictive as we’ve gone along,” says John Keeler, southern regional manager for the Utah Farm Bureau. “There was so much controversy over the way they wanted to do things, and the way ranchers were used to doing things.”

Utah ranchers have waited for years for the BLM to develop a grazing plan that would indicate how much land they can use and how they are allowed to use it. According to Keeler, the plan has not yet been announced, almost 20 years after the designation, but will be in the coming months. It holds within its pages Utah ranchers’ future.

“The plan really has boiled down to four or five alternatives that basically would specify how much land is available for grazing and how much isn’t, and it varies by a couple 100,000 acres,” Keeler says.

Nevada ranchers face the same unknowns with the Basin and Range monument and fear that the restrictions will prohibit them from completing necessary tasks to run their operations.

“They have a lot of purchased rights out there. They have loans on cattle; they have loans on purchasing those AUMs. Their financial lives are on the line when it pertains to this project,” Mathews says.