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Modern Day Range Wars-Part I
Posting Date: 04/23/2012

By Barbara Ellestad

[This multi-part series is intended to explore the controversial Gold Butte issue from several points of view. It's intended to be a combination of analysis, opinion and some news reporting.]

It's one of those issues where it doesn't matter what you say, someone is going to be mad.

Want to clear a room real quick? Just say two words, Gold Butte.

In an effort to better understand local issues and opinions with Gold Butte, I spent three hours talking to Nancy Hall, President of the local Friends of Gold Butte. I also spent three hours talking to lifelong Moapa Valley resident Elise McAllister, Director of the Partners in Conservation. I also spent three more hours on the phone with rancher and business owner, Met Johnson.

I intentionally stayed away from federal government organizations and nationally-based advocacy groups on purpose. You can criticize that if you want. But my intention in doing so was to keep a 'local' face on the subject because, after all, Gold Butte is in our backyard.

More from and about the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) role will come at a later date.

What I learned in my conversations with these three people, and a few others, is that passions run high, extremely high. There is no black and white; no easy answers. And, very little of the controversy with Gold Butte will be settled locally - probably the saddest part of the whole issue.

Right now the whole area is designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) with a couple small parcels designated as "Wilderness." Some groups want it established as a "National Conservation Area with Wilderness." Other groups contend that by changing from ACEC to a stricter designation will disallow any form of motorized vehicles, as in ATVs, and even bicycles.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value."

One thing I learned, especially talking to Johnson, is that there are so many players and interests in the outcome of what to do with Gold Butte that if you put all of them together, the 300,000 plus acres involved probably wouldn't be big enough to hold all of them.

Most of the controversy I've heard about is between those who want to limit certain kinds of recreational uses in Gold Butte versus those who don't want that many restrictions.

But, there's one part of the Gold Butte discussions I've hardly heard much about in all the years I've been in Mesquite; the interests of the longtime ranchers, farmers, and families who've lived here virtually their whole lives and used the Gold Butte area as their backyard playground.

Let's leave Cliven Bundy out of the discussion for now. He's the Bunkerville rancher who recently had a dust up with the Bureau of Land Management over cattle grazing in the area. We'll get to him later.

Johnson bought and sold cattle throughout parts of Southern Nevada and Utah for 33 years. Until recently, he spent 15 years living in Mesquite and probably knows every rancher and farmer that ever lived in these parts.

He's also been involved in land issues throughout the Southwest area most of his life.

Johnson contends the Gold Butte area is federally designated as multiple use. That means the land is not just for one type of user or one particular interest group. "Therefore, there are multiple stakeholders," he explained. "They have legal standing. They have rights, they have privileges, and they have potential investment, all for the good of Gold Butte. All of these stakeholders must have a part in any process that might change the multiple-use to any other federal designation, particularly wilderness." Johnson explained that a wilderness designation for the area would exclude all of the stakeholders' use in Gold Butte.

He listed all of the stakeholders in the Gold Butte controversy as he sees them. Fourteen in all, not in any particular order: municipal water users; agricultural water users; homesteading done by communities; recreation; oil and gas exploration; mining; commercial mineral rights; energy potential like wind and solar; grazing; hunting; fishing; boating; and environmental concerns from two standpoints - people not being allowed to go into an area and the concerns of people in the local, small communities.

That's a lot of pieces of the pie.

Johnson contends that many of these stakeholders have been intentionally ignored.

He referenced R.S. 2477 that designates rights-of-way through BLM lands. "They can be trails or two-track roads, highways, or even minuscule tracks into areas. Under a wilderness designation, R.S. 2477 can be cancelled and those roads closed. Even though no closures have taken place in the last few years, that designation has a very inhibiting stature. R.S. 2477 guarantees public access to these public lands but it can be cancelled under 'wilderness,'" he said.

One of his greatest concerns is the loss of local management and control of an area once it is designated as wilderness. "It becomes illegal to repair bridges or maintain trails," Johnson explained. "Whatever Mother Nature does, you don't fix it. It creates its own environment that prohibits you from going to an area if you can't repair those things."

Johnson believes that "the wilderness designation is beyond the necessity that Nevada has already accomplished. Nevada satisfied its wilderness designation years ago when the state sold its trust land to the Federal government. To get one more piece of land into a wilderness designation is ridiculous. Any more wilderness designations in Nevada just won't fly."

"To change this multiple-use concept by only one of 14 entities is ludicrous and totally unfounded. All of these entities need to be at the table. If any opinion surveys go out, they can't be sponsored and promoted by one entity," Johnson said. "All the people involved in any change of use have to be involved in the wording of the survey."

Johnson also contends the Mesquite City Council should not be involved in public land issues. "Their role is in public safety and roads and not in public lands use unless all the players are involved. This is not an issue to deal with lightly and all these players have an issue with this at some time and some where. The City Council needs to represent all the people, all the time."

Johnson feels that the ranchers, farmers, and families that trace their heritage back to the original settlers have been good stewards of the land. "If they tended it well for 120 years or more, should the government take control of it now? Should there be more control by the federal government? If that happens, then local control is gone. They just want to take the land away. Having the government in charge won't work. It has never worked."

[On Tuesday this series will explore the economic impact of leaving Gold Butte as an ACEC or designating it as an NCA with or without "Wilderness.]


  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    Guys like Johnson are the problem. They use a piece of land and they don't want anyone else on it. They -"who trace their heritage back to original settlers - think that it belongs to them alone. This isn't the 1800's anymore. Times are changing and the "original settlers" need to change with it. Cows are not more important than people.
    By: Jason
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    Mr. Johnson is not being totally sincere. What he cares about is his unrestricted use of that area for his business, not the entire Gold Butte.
    By: Sandi
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    NCA designation would be wonderful for Mesquite.
    By: J Paul
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    Wow, did the editor mess up on this one. First, Johnson doesn't even live in Nevada, he lives in Utah and buys and sells ranches. He doesn't give a hoot about Bunkerville other than to slam the government. Second, Bundy was given a lucrative offer from the government to buy his grazing shares and he refused. Third, cattle destroy everything in their path, they are just let go and not managed. The editor did NOT point out that the National Cattlemens Association nor the Nevada Cattlemens Association support these guys. To say they care about Gold Butte is a joke. Maybe the editor should see how much ranchers like Bundy get in subsidies from the feds and how much they get in discounts in grazing fees. To say they have been good stewards of the land is false, they let the cattle loose everywhere, don't pay the rightful share of fees and complain when others want to use Gold Butte. When this editor quotes someone on a local subject perhaps it shouldn't be someone from Utah, a former Utah politician, who has a vested interest in opposing anything the feds want to do.
    By: Jimmy
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    Barbara, Your statement “there's one part of the Gold Butte discussions I've hardly heard much about in all the years I've been in Mesquite; the interests of the longtime ranchers, farmers, and families who've lived here virtually their whole lives and used the Gold Butte area as their backyard playground” kind if says it all. One small segment of the population has been using the area “as they want” and they don’t want to allow other citizen/users to have any effect on this usage. However, even though they have been using it relatively unrestricted as if it was theirs, THEY DO NOT OWN THIS PROPERY. There have been several claims by ranchers that they own some “preferential grazing rights” in perpetuity, but these claims have typically been rejected by our court system time and time again. The statements by Johnson are just disingenuous. Under the proposals currently under consideration the only areas that are slated to become designated as wilderness are areas that currently have no roads, trails or other access and the total area slated for wilderness designation is less than 17% of the total acreage, and these areas are currently not being used by any of the “other” stakeholders and are purely a use by private enterprise. Beef and Dairy cows are NOT part of the natural wilderness environment and cause lasting damage to these areas if allowed to roam. By the way, I disagree also with Johnson’s claim that it is the job of the Federal, State or Local governments to protect the interests of the Oil & Gas, Mining, and Commercial Mineral Rights Industries as stakeholders on lands owned by the public. These are the same industries that DO NOT give the citizens of the U.S any “breaks” on the price of their products even though it comes off of OUR property, as they insist it is a “world market” that controls their prices
    By: John
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    Of course ranchers should pay realistic grazing fees for use of federal land. These should be comparable in cost to private property grazing costs also make sure that head counts are accurate using implanted microchips. Fees should be paid before cattle can be sold. At the same time we should resist wilderness declarations and road closures. The federal gov't agenda is to keep the public off of public land. Public land should be open to ALL USERS with only minimal common sense restrictions to preserve these assets for ALL USERS.
    By: A#1
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    A responsible rancher would pay his grazing fees, control his animals and respect the environment. History shows us early range wars began when ruthless ranchers let their cattle roam everywhere even on others property and range wars started when they wouldn't keep the cows on their own property. Maybe we should be looking at how much these poor innocent ranchers make off of cattle subsidies and water shares that they probably sold to SNWA.
    By: Becky
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    If you have ever been to places like Valley of Fire, Red Rocks and Lake Mead, you can see what responsible management creates. Compare that will Gold Butte which is overrun by cows trampling everything in sight, polluting the rivers and streams with their waste and has no management, you can see what is the better deal for Mesquite. A beautiful scenic area people will visit or just a big bunch of cow poop.
    By: Larry
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    Here's an idea. Ranchers pay the required grazing fees for putting cows on OUR land. Yes, it belongs to ALL of us. Pay me back, Mr. Rancher. The next thing he will want is to start drilling for oil in Gold Butte. Now how will that look with oil wells all over out there?
    By: Terry
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    A#1 – I agree with much of your position – the problem is that the folks who are using it are NOT paying fees (and haven’t for decades!) and are also not controlling their herds. Who will make ‘em do so? Only the federal government has the ability! However I disagree that the Federal Government has an “agenda” to keep everyone off of federally managed lands. I think we all have lots of real world examples of federal land that we get to enjoy – like Grand Canyon, Red Rock, Yellowstone, Zions, Bryce, etc. This “freedom” think is tricky, but the best practical compromise is “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose”. Some of these ranchers act like the land is theirs, but their unrestricted and uncontrolled use is infringing on the tights of the free use by the rest of us who don’t want the ancient rock writing destroyed, nor the crust of the desert disturbed which causes significant increases in dust storm debris, etc. To me “all users” means all of the PEOPLE who want to enjoy it, not all the BUSINESSES who want to exploit it for their own gain!
    By: John
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    Just one question, Mrs. Editor - can you say cow poop on the internet?
    By: Mary
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    Hopefully these posts come from people that have (1) either been to gold butte before or (2) actually understand all the issues at hand. This would allow an educated decision to be made on thier own. You can learn much more about the gold butte issues at
    By: Ryan W.
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    I don't pretend to understand all the issues of Gold Butte. To be honest, since I never go out there, I don't particularly care. But here's one thing I DO care about and always will: When anyone, whether it be ranchers, environmentalists, or the government itself starts making rules that ban the PUBLIC from using PUBLIC lands -- I'm always going to scream "NO!" If the government wants to close off one square foot of BLM land for any reason, I simply don't understand how anyone can believe that to be a good idea. But I sense this isn't really about protecting public access from either side. It's about two sides fighting for CONTROL of that land. It feels more like just another pissing match between the granola munchers who always want to put nature ahead of people, and money-grubbing ranchers who always want to put profits ahead of people. I don't particularly care for either bunch. But if I HAD to choose, I would always remember that cattle aren't pets or 4-H projects: they are food for humans. I will ALWAYS choose humans and their survival over tree huggers and their anti-human approach ("Oh, let's save the spotted owl, regardless of how many people lose their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes, and no matter what it does to the creation of homes for human beings." Nope, I'll never be on that train. If it comes between protecting desert tortoise habitat and building another road, housing development, or farm, I say bulldoze it all. "Survival of the fittest" isn't my rule. It isn't God's edict. It's Mother Nature's law. It would be arrogant of us to ignore nature's law under the misguided auspices of defending nature.
    By: Lawrence Aimes
  • Posted Date: 04/23/2012
    Just bulldoze it all, now there is a real genius talking. Probably agrees with selling water shares to Vegas for outrageous profit and screw Mesquite folks, for stealing from the VVWD and for ripping of the taxpayer for the Randy Ence library lot. I guess that stuff is survival of the fittest, too.
    By: Vic M
  • Posted Date: 04/24/2012
    Lawrence - what a great post. Our country is being ruined by the environmentalists. Humans should be the survivers, of course not due to the wanton destruction of everything but because of best use for the land. The best use of the land is not to leave it barren but to use it for our best interests not a turtle. If the Gold butte people have so much support why don't they BUY the land?
    By: Mike Young
  • Posted Date: 04/24/2012
    WOW – Lawrence and Mike Young – those are two of the most arrogant and uneducated positions I can imagine! “Environmentalists are ruining the country?” Do they not teach science like the food chain and the interdependence of species out here in Bunkerville and Mesquite? – or do you simply prefer to believe in magic instead of science? While you seem to be advocating the rights of “human beings” over those of all other species, even if it means the complete destruction of those other species for no good reason, what you are really advocating is the rights of greedy people to use the PUBLIC property to MAKE A BUSINESS PROFIT at the expense of not only other species, but also at the expense of the MAJORITY of human beings who want the public lands to be preserved for the future human beings, as well as the survival of ALL species. Under your advocated positions, I guess you would be in favor of letting businesses strip mine the Grand Canyon if they, in their own minds, decided it was the “best use”? Mike Young – the PEOPLE already own the land! If cattle ranching BUSINESSES want to use tens of thousands of acres for their businesses, then WHY DON’T THEY BUY IT?
    By: John
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