West's long, hot summer flares up over land use

From Nevada to Oregon, locals battle the federal government on environment.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The rural West is feeling the heat this summer - and not just from seasonal wildfires sending smoke to redden the sunsets. Conflicting values are the tinder. Politics is the spark.

Across the country, local and state agencies are butting heads with federal agents over property rights. But the clashes are particularly acute in Western states like Nevada, where Uncle Sam controls 87 percent of the land.

Some of this is due to the Bush administration's new approach to environmental protection and the degree to which natural resources should be exploited, favored by traditional industries, and opposed by many environmentalists. Both sides have ratcheted up actions in recent days.

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But there also are underlying and longstanding issues of personal freedom versus government control, newly simmering with support from militias and other antigovernment groups.

In several important cases, local officials have sided against federal agencies trying to enforce laws meant to protect national forests, grazing lands, and wildlife refuges, raising the prospect of conflict between levels of government not seen since the "sagebrush rebellion" first erupted in the 1970s.

The depth of feeling was exhibited recently when Lt. Jack Redfield, a 39-year veteran of the Klamath Falls, Ore., police department, exchanged his uniform cap for a white cowboy hat. He told a crowd of farmers and ranchers protesting federal water restrictions imposed to protect several species of endangered fish that environmentalists are "economic terrorists."

Lieutenant Redfield, who was suspended by city officials, warned that "extremists and out-of-control federal agents" could precipitate "an extremely violent response." Nearby, federal agents guarded an irrigation headgate that farmers had illegally broken open earlier in the summer.

Not far away in Nevada this week, a district judge prevented the federal Bureau of Land Management from auctioning off some of the cattle seized from local ranchers. The BLM confiscated the cattle in order to cover grazing fees and fines that ranchers on federal land have refused to pay in recent years. Local sheriffs, siding with the ranchers, initially tried to block the seizures, but backed down when the US attorney weighed in.

Similar conflicts over public lands have taken place recently in California and Utah. They follow earlier episodes in which local officials asserting "county supremacy" clashed with federal agencies.

Support for property rights - especially those of farmers, ranchers, miners, and loggers - has grown among conservative organizations and individuals who charge that environmental activism is undermining traditional Western culture and economy.

The battle took another legal turn this week when several environmental groups in Oregon and California filed suit to force the Bush administration (which has recently tipped the water balance in the parched Klamath Basin toward farmers) to let more water flow into a national wildlife refuge there. Environmentalists say hundreds of bald eagles and thousands of other migrating birds could perish this year without the water.

Militias and other elements of the "patriot" movement have declined in recent years, but they find fuel for their rhetorical battles in such issues. Arguing that the federal government has no right under the US Constitution to enforce laws protecting endangered species, Carl Worden of the Southern Oregon Militia says, "It comes down to this: The feds will get away with whatever you let them get away with."

For their part, some radical environmentalists are responding with the threat of even more violence. An anonymous "communiqué" from the shadowy Earth Liberation Front last week warned that large nails had been hammered into hundreds of old-growth trees in parts of a national forest in Washington State slated for logging. The nails can severely injure or kill loggers or mill workers if hit by a power saw.

In Oregon and Idaho, meanwhile, antigovernment radicals see another cause to rally around: the seizure of allegedly abused children by state agencies.

Three young daughters living with their parents in a bus parked in Grants Pass, Ore., were removed to a foster home by state child-welfare officials when the girls were found to be malnourished and dehydrated. The parents say they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Antigovernment organizations came to their defense.

Late last month, their father and another man kidnapped his children at gunpoint. Both were arrested, and the girls were returned to foster care. The case followed a similar one earlier this year in northern Idaho.

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