The Shovel Rebellion

A century-old dispute over federal lands has erupted in protests and violence in Elko County, Nevada. Why are folks in this isolated Western community taking the law into their own hands?

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There’s no such thing as a casual visit to Jarbidge, Nevada. You have to want to go there, as it requires driving some 50 miles of washboard dirt roads and hairpin turns. You eat serious dust. The most remote town in Nevada, it lies on the floor of a canyon carved into aspen-rich mountains. Civilization consists of a smattering of houses, two bars, and a small creek optimistically named the Jarbidge River. It’s an unlikely town for a civil uprising, if for no other reason than it’s damn hard to get to. But Jarbidge has become the bull’s-eye of the growing anti-federal movement in the West.

On Independence Day last year, some 300 protesters armed with shovels disrupted their barbecues and fireworks to journey to this northern reach of Elko County in the northeastern corner of Nevada. Calling themselves the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, they gathered to defy the U.S. Forest Service by clearing a narrow road on federal land that had been blocked by the agency. A mile or so of the road had been washed out by a flood in 1995, and the agency had decided to keep it closed, saying that construction would hasten erosion and threaten the river’s dwindling population of bull trout.

Long angered by federal restrictions on everything from water access to grazing rights, county officials and anti-federalists across the West seized upon the obscure road as a symbol of their discontent. “We will rebuild the road, come hell or high water,” declared Tony Lesperance, an Elko County commissioner. The demonstrators, met by dozens of law enforcement officers and media cameras, paraded down Main Street, brandishing their shovels and singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” An all-terrain vehicle pulled a trailer decorated with a tombstone reading “U.S. Forest Service.” A teenager’s sign declared “Tree Huggers: the other red meat.” When they reached South Canyon Road — a dusty, dead-end track leading to a campground — they wrapped ropes around a four-ton boulder blocking the way and heaved it aside.

Their exploits made the evening news. “The major media practically engulfed us at times, trying to out-quote each other and line up for photo ops,” one participant noted gleefully. It was a classic fin-de-siècle American protest: a staged telegenic moment steeped in Western symbolism.

The protests have not been confined to assaulting boulders on federal land. In recent years, Elko has gained a reputation as the most lawless county in the West. In 1995, on the same day a bomb exploded in a Forest Service building across the state in Carson City, a detonated pipe bomb was discovered in an outhouse at a campground near Elko, the county seat. Federal employees and their families have been harassed and threatened by local residents, prompting one top-ranking Forest Service official to resign. Snowmobilers venture into protected habitats, ranchers “trespass” their cows on pastures set aside as off-limits, and residents take firewood from federal lands and forests without permits. In Jarbidge, even local politicians have abandoned civility and due process. The week before I visited, two county commissioners feuding over floor time at a public meeting had to be physically separated by the sheriff, and the former publisher of the local paper expressed his civic spirit by shooting an officer’s dog in the middle of town.

Such incidents may seem minor, but they represent skirmishes in a larger battle. Nevada has been the fastest-growing state in the country for three decades running, and most of that growth has occurred in Las Vegas and Reno, both well over 200 miles from Elko, giving rural residents less of a voice in state politics. At the same time, Elko has watched as national priorities have steadily shifted, placing an increased emphasis on protecting the environment while the region’s extractive industries decline. The Old West and the New West are locked in a deep ideological conflict. On the one hand is the region’s traditional Lockean association of freedom with property rights; on the other, a new valuation of the pristine resources of a collectively held landscape. The question now is how to deal with that divide. Leaders of the Shovel Brigade have channeled their frustration into a simple, if futile, goal: taking ownership of public land in a state where a whopping 87 percent of all territory is federally managed.

“They are neglected by the state and by the federal government, and they’re mad,” says Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada. “They’re out of the loop; decisions get made for them. It’s not unlike inner cities, whose needs don’t get heard until there’s violence.”

If you look at a map of the continental United States and draw a 200-mile-radius circle around every city of at least 100,000 people, there would be only a few places where those circles don’t overlap: a blank spot around the Four Corners region of the Southwest, another along the Montana-Dakotas border, one in western Kansas, and another in northeastern Nevada. With 30,000 residents outside of the county seat, Elko County is not only sparse, it is enormous; at 17,000 square miles, you could fit all of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut within its boundaries. In 1890, the Census Bureau declared the frontier officially closed because the West had finally achieved a population density of more than two people per square mile. By that definition, Elko County’s wide open spaces are still a frontier.

That’s precisely the way people here like it.

During the county fair and rodeo last September, I stood across from the Dairy Queen and watched Elko’s prominent citizens parade down Idaho Street on floats that typify the rural West. There were politicians wearing cowboy hats in pickup trucks and horse-drawn buggies, Boy Scouts with red wagons, the Elko High School Band of Indians. Afterward, at the fairgrounds, people bet on horse races and watched the barrel races and calf roping in the center ring. A sign on a nearby water tower looming over Interstate 80 proclaimed “Elko, Gold Country, Home of Cowboy Poetry.” Sixty percent of the nation’s gold is mined here, and the county relies heavily on its natural resources for cattle ranching. It also boasts more than its share of casinos, brothels, and Mormon churches. It’s an Old West economy, one that has always required a certain fierceness to survive in a harsh and unyielding land. “The toughest, meanest bastard won in any conflict,” says one Forest Service official. “You had to fight harder, scream louder, draw quicker.”

Yet even the most politically active residents are sometimes at a loss to explain Elko’s unique brand of anger. “I think it must be something in the water,” jokes Mary Rahn, secretary of the county’s Libertarian Party. I find her sitting at a fair booth between the fry bread and the Ferris wheel. She tells me that membership in the party more than quadrupled in four years, to about 150 people. She also tells me that almost all the party’s officers took part in the Jarbidge demonstration. “We’re so dependent on public lands, most of us would be out of work if the government keeps restricting us,” Rahn says. “At what point do we cease to be free?”

In Nevada, resentment over the land dates back to the state’s founding. Settlers had expected to take possession of much of the land after the territory was admitted to the Union in 1864. But to the dismay of miners, ranchers, and loggers, most of the state remained in the public domain, and millions of acres were eventually preserved as national forests or placed under the direction of the federal Bureau of Land Management. The deep-seated seething came to a head in 1977. Angered by federal moves to increase fees for ranchers who grazed livestock on public lands and to set aside millions of acres as wilderness areas, the Nevada legislature backed a legal challenge to claim most of the federal land. Other Western states quickly followed suit, launching a regional movement that became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Reaganism and its attendant policies softened the rebels — but in Elko County, they didn’t stay docile for long. In 1995, when Forest Service rangers ordered a rancher named Don Duval to tear out a pipe he had installed without a permit to carry water from a spring located in a national forest, residents were quick to respond. Urged on by Republican state assemblyman John Carpenter, 500 people built a fence around the spring and hung up a sign declaring “The land inside this enclosure, and the water, belong to the people of the great state of Nevada.” The case was eventually settled out of court, with the rancher finally agreeing to obtain a permit, but not before the strapped county ponied up nearly $450,000 defending him.

In the current battle over the Forest Service road, Carpenter and other elected officials are once again leading the charge. Elko County claims that it, not the federal government, owns South Canyon Road under an obscure federal statute dating from 1866, known as R.S. 2477. The statute essentially guaranteed settlers rights-of-way across federal land. When the Forest Service failed to repair the road after the flood, the County Commission decided to do it on its own, without bothering to obtain the appropriate permits. After the county had already filled in 900 feet of wetlands and changed the course of the Jarbidge River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection got an injunction against the county for violating the Clean Water Act. In 1999, Carpenter and two of his allies — attorney Grant Gerber and county gop chairman O.Q. Chris Johnson — organized a group to reopen the road. Threatened with a federal restraining order, the men turned back, but they have continued to spur on the Shovel Brigade.

“We’re going to be in uprisings for as long as the Forest Service does what’s wrong,” says Carpenter, who is widely regarded as one of the most powerful men in the county. It was his idea, for example, to erect a 30-foot-high statue of a shovel on the lawn of the county courthouse — a towering reminder of how the local law has sided with the lawless. “No More Roadless Area” trumpets a sign on the shovel, which bears the names of thousands of supporters of the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade.

I visit Carpenter in his truck stop-slash-real estate office, where he represents ranch properties. “To protect and care for all his creations,” reads a bumper sticker pasted on his door, “God has made ranchers.”

Carpenter is tall and imposing, the kind of man who wears big belt buckles and big boots. A well-worn cowboy hat rests near his desk, and his wall is papered with an immense tangerine-hued photo of horses galloping in the sunset.

“Extreme environmentalists want to lock things up and not use them,” he says, big hands resting against his belly. “We’re going to protest, just like the civil rights people.”

Such a view permits no compromise. Last spring, a federal district judge ordered Elko County and the Forest Service into mediation to resolve their dispute over the road. After 100 days, the two sides reached a proposed settlement that gave the county essentially everything it wanted: a nice new road farther away from the fish, paid for by the feds. The agency even agreed to give the county the authority to maintain the road in the future. But the agreement stopped short of explicitly stating that the county “owned” the road. That wasn’t enough to satisfy Carpenter and many county officials, even though the county’s own negotiators had hammered out the terms. The County Commission refused to sign the settlement.

“We gave up too damn much,” says Tony Lesperance, a rancher and one of the commissioners who was stopped by the sheriff before getting into a fistfight with a colleague during a discussion of the issue. Lesperance is willing to fight the feds in court, despite the tremendous public cost and the shaky legal ground.

“I can’t go on with extinguishing our rights,” he says. “It’s a line we cannot cross. To people who say, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ I say, ‘Go to hell.'” Once the lawsuit is filed, he adds, many supporters “will be willing to put their shoulder to the wheel” to help pay for it.

Such bluster is exasperating to citizens and county officials who are fed up with the antifederalists. Karen Dredge, who is retiring after 17 years as Elko County clerk, points out that nobody stepped forward to help underwrite the county’s failed lawsuit over rancher Don Duval’s water rights. “The county is broke,” says Dredge. “We were told to cut all our departments’ budgets, and they want to fight a cause that really strays from county business. Some of our commissioners are activists, not leaders. It’s a room full of the same radical people with the same radical words, and they want us to foot the bill.”

Those radical words — often threatening in tone — have silenced many voices of moderation. The atmosphere of intimidation in Elko is palpable. John Rice, a local drama teacher who says he respects the Shovel Brigade, recalls the hostility that greeted his remarks supporting the mediated settlement at a recent County Commission meeting. “Read the Federalist Papers before you speak,” one woman in the audience told him. “Why don’t you go back to where you came from, Green Face?” another shouted. “It’s too bad,” Rice says,”because a lot of reasonable people don’t speak up.”

Janice King, a college instructor who spoke out against placing the giant shovel on the courthouse lawn, agrees. “I braced myself going to the grocery store,” she says. “You don’t know how much in a small town is paranoia, but you do feel known and exposed. People are hesitant to speak up for fear of economic reprisals.”

It’s not easy being green in Elko County, and local environmentalists keep their heads down. “I’d like to talk to you, but it’s a small town,” one tells me. “I have a business and I have to get along.” Many Forest Service employees drive unmarked vehicles on their rounds and leave their uniforms in the closet. “Elko is uniquely challenging,” says Gary McLaughlin, who spent a year as the only Forest Service officer patrolling 4 million acres of Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. “We suffer for it. It’s a very difficult job.”

In Elko County, the anti-federal attitude comes from the top. Two years ago, the district attorney drafted a public service announcement advocating discrimination against Forest Service employees. “This message is brought to you by the Elko County Commission, who encourages you to let the Forest Service know what you think about this by not cooperating with them,” the draft read. “Don’t sell goods or services to them until they come to their senses.” The commission did not act on the district attorney’s advice, but hostilities became so great that Gloria Flora, supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe, resigned from her job in 1999, saying she feared for the safety of her employees (see “Hellraiser,” March/April 2000). “Officials at all levels of government in Nevada participate in this irresponsible fed bashing,” Flora noted in her farewell letter to employees.

Others have also spoken out. Jack Prier, a carpenter and self-described “redneck environmentalist” originally from North Carolina, was one of the few people who stood up at a recent public meeting crowded with angry opponents and defended the Forest Service’s national proposal to ban new forest roads. “I’m so sick of this folksy cowboy bullshit,” Prier says with typical Nevada directness. Wearing a T-shirt that says “Support Your Right to Arm Bears,” he can be as strident and ideological as his enemies. “The state of New Jersey has twice as many cows as the state of Nevada,” he says. “These guys are living in a past that says everything is okay, while all about them the economy is changing so fast. All of a sudden the population is growing and wanting different things.”

Many residents fear that the alpha-male approach to conßict resolution prevents the local economy from diversifying beyond casinos and gold mining. “This is certainly not good for economic development,” worries Glen Guttry, an Elko city councilman. “Some people are afraid to move in because of all the controversy.”

For now, though, the self-styled rebels have seized the day, bulldozing over their quieter, more process-oriented neighbors like a defiant road in the wilderness.

Hoping for some further insight into Elko’s anger, I decide to pay a visit to Dean Rhoads. A state senator and the founding patriarch of the original Sagebrush Rebellion, Rhoads introduced the 1977 bill allowing the state to sue for ownership of federal land. Today, at 65, he lives in the remote Independence Valley, an hour north of Elko, in a modest, weathered farmhouse.

I find him surrounded by scruffy pets. Rhoads is far from the swaggering rancher type — he’s small, humble, even charming. He faces an opponent in the Republican primary the following day, a mining supplier named Gene Gustin, but Rhoads is considered the moderate in the race. He takes pains to distance the revolt he led 23 years ago from the current conflict.

“The original thrust of the Sagebrush Rebellion was more friendly and more credible,” he says. “The Jarbidge thing is more a right-wing group opposed to a lot of the things the federal agency does. They’re not willing to cooperate and compromise. Compromise to them is a dirty word. There’s a definite lack of credibility. Elko County is almost the laughingstock of the state.”

The next day, Rhoads prevails over Gustin, a supporter of the Shovel Brigade who opposed the mediated settlement of the road issue. When I meet later with Gustin at an Elko truck stop, he seems defeated spiritually as well as politically.

“To be honest, you’re probably seeing the last pockets of resistance,” he says. “Through litigation and intimidation, the government has suppressed most opposition. I don’t see any real way politically that Western states will be able to shift power back in any meaningful way in the foreseeable future.”

But such realism doesn’t last long in Elko, and Gustin soon returns to predicting a glorious future for the sagebrush uprising. It won’t be easy to foster civilized dialogue in a county with such a deep legacy of conflict and bitterness — and if there is hope for the future here, it may well lie with Leta Collord. A gray-haired activist, Collord got her start as a supporter of the “wise use” movement, which attacks the government’s right to limit private development to protect the environment. Then, during a training seminar sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management, she began to believe it might be possible to sit down with one’s enemies rather than to simply rail against them.

In 1998, Collord helped found the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group, an organization that fosters collaboration and civil exchange among ranchers, local businessmen, environmentalists, and representatives from federal agencies. The group is currently working on a range of controversial issues, including habitat protection for the sage grouse. Similar groups around the West have gained credibility as problem solvers able to sway federal decision making, and many Elko County residents praise Collord’s organization as “reasonable” and “willing to listen” — rare assets in a county known for its discord.

This fall, Collord lost her own campaign for a seat on the County Commission to a more outspoken opponent, and her group has little direct clout with the powers that remain in local government. Nevertheless, she hopes its influence will continue to grow. “We’re the blind leading the blind as far as politics goes,” she says over coffee at the High Desert Inn and Casino in Elko. “But at least these issues are now getting broader representation. People in our group are credible, responsible, and involved.”

Still, one topic they have carefully avoided is the dispute over the South Canyon Road. “The idea is to deal with emerging issues and cut things off at the pass before they become politicized and polarizing,” Collord explains. Then she voices a sentiment quietly shared by many in Elko County. “Jarbidge has already done a real job on the community,” she says. “We’d like to move beyond that.”


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Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

Yet, we just came up pretty short on our first big fundraising campaign since Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined forces.

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