Newspaper column: How to save the West from devastating wildfires

As we enter another wildfire season — and each one seems to be more devastating than the previous one — the question lingers: Why?

According to The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic it is unquestionably due to climate change.

Pay no heed to the fact that prior to 1980 less than 25,000 acres of wildfires occurred each year in Nevada. In each of the past two years, more than 1 million acres have burned. Coincidentally, since 1980 the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have made massive cuts in the number of cattle and sheep allowed to graze federal land. The number of sheep has fallen 80 percent and the number of cattle has been cut in half.

This past week’s issue of Executive Intelligence Review magazine asks the question: “What Is Causing Massive Wildfires In the U.S. West: The Environment — Or Environmentalism?”

The article focuses on the largest fire in Nevada history — the July 2018 Martin Fire, which burned nearly half a million acres in Northeast Nevada and devastated the Ninety-Six Ranch, which has been run by the Stock and Stewart families for 155 years. The article includes an extensive interview with rancher Kris Stewart, who has been lobbying the federal land agencies and the president to allow historic levels of grazing to prevent such wildfires.

Stewart told the magazine’s editor the vegetative fuel levels on the rangeland that burned in the Martin Fire had been allowed to reach 1,000 percent of normal by the BLM’s own estimates, and, despite this, she said the ranch was denied permission for additional grazing time.

In the 1960s, she reported, “the modern environmental movement began to inform range management studies and policy, and environmental lawsuits caused a shift in grazing policies. Once considered engaged partners, ranchers were viewed as the enemy …”

This was political, not scientific. Stewart noted that range biologists such as Allan Savory have concluded that livestock grazing disturbs the soil in a healthy manner, “allowing rain and snow water, seeds and fertilizer to be absorbed throughout the soil. They obviously also deposit some of those seeds as well as a completely natural and healthy fertilizer to the soil.”

In the 2015 summer edition of Range magazine, under the headline “Cows can save the world,” Savory stated, “Over millions of years such grasslands — soil life, plants, grazing animals and their predators — developed together in an amazing symbiotic relationship. The grasses needed animals grazing, trampling, dunging and urinating just as much as the animals needed plants.”

Newspaper column: Want to save the planet? Let the cows out

Grant Gerber, champion of grazing. (photo submitted to Elko Daily Free Press)

Once again the sagacity of cowboy philosopher Will Rogers has been proved: “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

Writing in the summer edition of Range magazine longtime ecologist Allan Savory notes that it is universally agreed that strict control on livestock grazing is needed to prevent turning our rangelands into barren deserts. But it ain’t so.

“In more than 60 years of research, neither I nor any collaborating scientists have found any evidence to support the idea that controlling livestock numbers prevents desertification,” writes Savory under the superlative headline, “Cows Can Save the World.”

In fact, Savory reports, complete removal of cattle accelerates desertification for two reasons. “First, most or all aboveground stems and leaves of perennial grasses die back every year,” according to Savory. “Unlike trees that also have leaf turnover, grasses cannot shed dead leaves and stems. Over millions of years such grasslands — soil life, plants, grazing animals and their predators — developed together in an amazing symbiotic relationship. The grasses needed animals grazing, trampling, dunging and urinating just as much as the animals needed plants.”

Land on left was grazed while that on right was not.

Land on left was grazed while that on right was not. (Range magazine photo by Andrea Malmberg)

The writer, who is originally from Rhodesia but now makes his home in New Mexico, notes that most Americans live on the coasts where there is enough moisture for grasses to rapidly oxidize, but in the more arid climes gradual oxidation doesn’t allow adequate sunlight to reach ground level if there is no grazing. This results in grasslands weakening and nature striving to fill the vacuum with taproots plants — weeds or forbs, shrubs and trees if rainfall is high enough.

While this may sound like heresy to federal land managers and those whose experience with grass in limited to a backyard turf, it is something many ranchers have been saying for years.

The late Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber often charged that federal agents are in thrall of the radical environmentalists, whose mantra is that the land should be returned to the pristine state before ranchers ruined it by trampling it with sheep and cattle.

But the truth is quite the opposite. It is those sheep and cattle that helped transform the Great Basin into a land hospitable for wildlife such as elk, deer and sage grouse.

Gerber, who died in October of a head injury after his horse stumbled during a protest ride to Washington on behalf of ranchers being forced off federal public land, was fond of quoting from the diary of fur trapper Peter Skene Ogden who crossed Nevada circa 1828: “There were times when we tasted no food, and we were unable to discover water for several days together; without wood, we keenly felt the cold; wanting grass, our horses were reduced to great weakness, so that many of them died, on whose emaciated carcases we were constrained to satisfy the intolerable cravings of our hunger, and as a last resource, to quench our thirst with their blood.”

Only after the sheep and cattle came and trampled the earth and fertilized it and ranchers improved access to water, the region blossomed, Gerber contends.

Gerber explained in an interview a couple of years ago that this was because: “Along the Humboldt River it began to get a little better because as these wagon trains would come through the cattle would plow up the soil with their hooves, the oxen and the horses and the sheep. They’d fertilize it and they would knock down the sage brush and grind it into soil. Just like you do with your garden. Every year the soil got a little bit better.”

This is also explained by Ruby Valley rancher Cliff Gardner, who in an article in the Elko Daily Free Press in November, noted that between 1846 and 1853 an estimated 165,000 people crossed the Great Basin en route to California. They brought with them nearly 1 million cattle, sheep and horses.

“Think of the impact these animals must have had on the environment along the Humboldt and elsewhere during that period,” Gardner recounts. “But did things deteriorate — was the grass abused and depleted? Not according to the logs and diaries that were kept. Almost to a person, it was indicated that grazing conditions were improving — that there was more grass and feed found then, than had been found earlier.”

Grazing has transformed Nevada. Do we wish to see it revert to a pristine but barren state devoid of wildlife and vegetation?

A version of this column appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

How to save the sage grouse from extinction

On the day after the Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado is listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a totally unnecessary move, along comes Ruby Valley rancher Cliff Gardner with a lesson in history for those who want to return the West to its pristine state before being despoiled by European settlers and their sheep and cattle.

Gunnison sage grouse

Gardner, who has waged a heated and protracted court battle with federal land agencies for years, points out that the effort to “save” the natural population of greater sage grouse across Nevada and 10 other Western states is a distortion of facts and history.

He points out that the current healthy number of sage grouse are entirely due to rangeland management and predator control by ranchers, and historically the bird was seldom found in Nevada:

“All seem bent on ignoring the fact that during the first 20 years of exploration into the Great Basin, no one mentioned seeing sage grouse. Jedediah Smith never mentioned seeing sage grouse during his trip across central Nevada in 1827. John Work never mentioned seeing sage grouse while trapping throughout much of the northern portion of today’s Nevada in 1831. Zenas Leonard never mentioned seeing sage grouse in 1833. Nor did Joe Meek, John Bidwell, John Fremont, Charles Preuss, Heinrich Lienhard, or James Clyman mention seeing sage grouse.”

This is something various writers have been pointing out for years, but even the state officials working to “preserve” the sage grouse ignore it.

The late Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber pointed out in an interview three years ago how the land changed with the coming of ranchers.

When the wagon trains started coming through Nevada  in the 1840s, they had the same experience as those earlier explorers and trappers who Gardner mentions. In many of their journals they talked about how very little grass there was and how their livestock were doing so poorly as they crossed Nevada.

Then things got to be a little better, according to Gerber:

“Along the Humboldt River it began to get a little better because as these wagon trains would come through the cattle would plow up the soil with their hooves the oxen and the horses and the sheep. They’d fertilize it and they would knock down the sage brush and grind it into soil. Just like you do with your garden. Every year the soil got a little bit better.”

But never let the facts get in the way of “saving” a species from being trampled by humans.

Cliff Gardner (Range magazine photo by Mary Branscomb)

Grant Gerber leaves a legacy of ever questing for liberty

Travis and Grant Gerber on the Grass March in May. (Cris Voss photo via Elko Daily Free Press)

Grant Gerber was the consummate Nevadan.

Gerber, 72, died of head injuries sustained when his horse fell during the coast-to-coast Grass March Cowboy Express to protest BLM mismanagement of federal public land in Nevada. His memorial service was, appropriately, on Nevada Day.

He never stopped fighting for the land and people he loved.

Gerber, before he was elected to the Elko County Commission, introduced me to the writings of explorer Peter Skene Ogden, who traversed Nevada about 1828. Gerber noted that Ogden’s diary illustrates — contrary to what the so-called environmentalists would try to tell you — that the people did not just occupy and use the land, but transformed it.

Ogden observed:

“There were times when we tasted no food, and we were unable to discover water for several days together; without wood, we keenly felt the cold; wanting grass, our horses were reduced to great weakness, so that many of them died, on whose emaciated carcases we were constrained to satisfy the intolerable cravings of our hunger, and as a last resource, to quench our thirst with their blood.”

Before the sheep and cattle came and trampled the earth and fertilized it, there was nothing to burn and no game to eat. There was no sage grouse to declare endangered, nor many desert tortoises. There were few wildfires, because there was nothing to burn.

Humans and their domestic animals are part and parcel of the rural Nevada environment, but don’t waste your breath trying to explain that to the federal bureaucrats and the so-called environmentalists.

Unaccountable federal bureaucrats were the bane of attorney Gerber’s existence and he often represented ranchers in their battles with the federal land agencies, too often pro bono.

Gerber had a way with logic and a way with words to illustrate that logic.

He told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City before he headed out on the coast-to-coast protest ride:

“There is absolutely no civil disobedience here in any way. The BLM manager is unelected and unaccountable, and everyone wants him removed, but they can’t do it. He is sitting in a position of total control and it is tyranny. That is why our message is ‘regulation without representation is tyranny.'”

May others take up his legacy and continue the fight for liberty.

Elko Daily Free Press obituary for A. Grant Gerber.

Commentary by fellow Commissioner Jeff Williams.

Commentary by Sherman Frederick.

Friends remember Gerber.

Gerber’s Smoked Bear website.

House subcommittee hears tales of federal land managers abusing their power

(Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber begins at about 50:00 and again at 2:30:00.)

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream
The House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation picked up with part II this past week with its hearing on “Threats, Intimidation and Bully by Federal Land Managing Agencies.” Previously Nevada rancher Wayne Hage testified in Part I.

Grant Gerber testifies before Congress.

Grant Gerber testifies before Congress.

Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber testified federal managers used to be “friendly, they came to the ranch, we worked with them, but over the years that’s changed. …

“They’re predominantly from outside the area and do not develop connections with the locals,” said Gerber. “Many start out with a belligerent attitude, even a commanding presence. They’re especially offended if anyone opposes any federal government actions.”

He told one officer who ticketed some men for illegally cutting firewood, even though the men had a permit. The officer thought he was in a wilderness study area, but he was on the wrong mountain.

Gerber also pointed out that the livelihoods of ranchers rest on the “whims” of BLM managers who are not even following their own rules. He also noted rancher Cliven Bundy tried to cooperate with the BLM but they denied him and other ranchers the right to profitably graze the range as they had done for generations.

BLM year-long deal dries up in just two months

In May the Bureau of Land Management announced it had come to a year-long deal with ranchers on the Argenta allotment in the Battle Moutain District to allow grazing.

This came after the district manager told ranchers there would be no grazing this summer due to drought, though independent range consultants said the range was suitable and even needed to be grazed to prevent wildfire.

The agreement was reached after a widespread and well-publicized protest to the BLM’s arbitrary and livelihood-threatening decisions.

Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber staged what he called a Grass March that highlighted the plight of ranchers and called for the ouster of the district manager.

This week, according to the Elko Daily Free Press, the ranchers were told that half the grazing areas would be closed to grazing and cattle had to be moved in seven days.

“We have 7 days to ride the entire mountain and have the cattle off. We are right in the middle of haying and are forced to drop everything and begin gathering cattle,” the Tomeras wrote in an email to various elected officials. “We are forced to put the cattle in areas that have much less forage than the mountain where they are now. Much of their monitoring reflects only a small portion of the area yet this is what they use to determine the health of the entire area.”

The Tomeras also said their range consultant was denied access to the BLM’s monitoring data. About half the land is privately owned but not fenced off. All the water rights are privately held.

BLM protest: ‘Marching’ on horseback to a mountain instead of the sea

On Monday, May 26, Memorial Day, a group of Nevadans are planning what they are calling a Grass March — a 70-mile horseback trek from Elko to Battle Mountain to publicly protest and bring attention to the plight of ranchers who are methodically having their grazing rights on federal land stripped away by federal agencies.

The organizers are styling the “march” after Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March from Sabarmati to Dandi, India, to protest the British colonial monopoly on salt. The Salt March was the opening salvo in a series of non-violent acts of civil disobedience highlighting tyrannical British policies. It garnered worldwide public sympathy and helped lead to India’s independence.

Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930

March organizer Grant Gerber, an Elko County Commissioner and attorney, said the federal bureaucracy, particularly the Bureau of Land Management, has the same stranglehold on Nevada land and grass as the British had on Indian salt supplies.

“The British Government had a total monopoly on all salt,” Gerber noted. “A citizen of India was even prevented from distilling a little salt from ocean water for his family. All salt had to be bought from the British Government.  In Nevada the federal government has a monopoly on Nevada land and the grass. The government owns 87 percent of the land, but also exercises total control over much of the private land as well. The effective control of the government exceeds 92 percent of the grass in Nevada.”

Gerber, along with his sons and former Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, are inviting people to join in the Grass March to help raise awareness of the threat to ranchers, many of whom have worked the land for generations — some going back prior to Nevada statehood.

Gerber will ride the first 20 miles from Elko to Carlin on Memorial Day. There, Carlin Mayor Cliff Eklund is planning various events at the rodeo grounds in support of the ranchers. On the 27th Gerber will continue the ride covering 15 to 20 miles per day, depending where he camps. His sons and others will provide assistance along with support at least part of the way from an old chuck wagon to be pulled by a team of white mules.

“We believe that it is the inalienable right of Nevadans to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil,” Gerber said. “We believe also that — since the agencies of the federal government are depriving Nevadans of their rights and oppressing them — the control of the federal lands must be transferred to the state of Nevada for the protection of the citizens of Nevada. If any government deprives a people of their rights and oppresses them, the people have a right to alter that government or abolish it. (A close paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence.) The British government in India not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but was ruining India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually. The same thing is happening in Nevada.”

The Grass March is partly in response to recent restrictions by the BLM on ranchers in Lander County who have for generations grazed cattle on Mount Lewis.

In 1964 the BLM forced the ranchers on Mount Lewis to cut their cattle and sheep grazing by 50 percent, even though half of the land was privately-owned, as are all of the water rights. The ranchers had been grazing their cattle on the mountain since 1862, two years before Nevada became a state.

In the 1980s the state of Nevada bought out the Tomera Ranches in Elko County to build the South Fork Reservoir. The Pete Tomera family then bought the Marvel and Horn ranches on Mount Lewis.

The Tomeras, along with three Filippini families and others, have been grazing the mountain ever since. The Tomeras own 80 percent of the grazing rights and most of the water on the mountain. The Tomeras own more than 80 springs, 12 wells and 183 miles of streams.

The Tomeras and their neighbors say they have always paid the grazing fees.

In February the Bureau of Land Management informed the Tomeras that it was cutting the grazing on Mount Lewis by 100 percent for 2014, Gerber said, leaving the three Tomera families no place to graze 1,800 head of cattle. This was after the families built an $80,000, 16-mile fence in an attempt to satisfy the BLM’s demands — to no avail.

Attorney Gerber, who represented the Tomeras on legal matters in the past, told the Tomeras that filing suit to force the government to let them graze their cattle this year would be pointless. It would take too long for a BLM administrative judge to act, and during that time the Tomeras and their neighbors would be prevented from grazing.

By the time they could appeal in a real court they would have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and missed years of grazing on the mountain, Gerber predicted, saying the actions of the BLM just this past year and so far this year have already cost the Tomera family over $300,000.

“The government and their friends in the radical environmental organizations claim that they know best and that by cutting grazing they are doing good for wildlife and the land.  But that is not true,” Gerber says. “In 1828 when Peter Skene Ogden, with thirty trappers and hunters, was sent into Nevada to explore and trap by the Hudson Bay Company he found a barren country.”

Ogden’s party passed through the Battle Mountain and Elko areas, but never killed a deer, an elk, a buffalo, a sage hen or a wild horse. They had to kill and eat their own horses to even survive.

It wasn’t until ranchers began irrigating the land that wildlife flourished, Gerber points out. The livestock plowed up the ground with their sharp hooves and their fertilizer improved the soil so that plants could flourish.

Since the 1950s, Nevada cattle grazing has been reduced by more than 50 percent and sheep grazing by more than 90 percent. As a result of the massive grazing reductions huge fires have been occurring regularly burning millions of animals, Gerber says.

Those wishing to participate or inquire about the Grass March may contact the organizers at: or by phone at 775-934-7507.



Yet another front opens in the battle by ranchers against the arbitrary rulings from the BLM

Tomera family

At a meeting of ranchers in Austin, Nev., a couple of weeks ago, someone was circulating a petition demanding that Doug Furtado, the head of the Battle Mountain district of the Bureau of Land Management be fired.

The reason for that animus is becoming clearer by the day.

At the meeting several ranchers reported that Furtado was demanding that all cattle should be off all riparian grazing lands by June 30. (Riparian lands are simply those near a water source such as a stream or spring.) Never mind the fact that almost 100 percent of the water rights, which are granted by the state and not the federal government whether on federal-controlled land or not, belong to the ranchers. Nor pay any heed to the fact federal Judge Robert Jones in the Wayne Hage case ruled that ranchers have a right to graze their cattle within a half-mile radius of their rightful water sources.

In today’s Elko Daily Free Press, Rex Steninger, whose family used to own the paper, reports that Furtado has ordered one rancher to not turn out any cattle at all this year on his public grazing range.

According to the newspaper account, long-time rancher Pete Tomera, who holds the majority of the grazing rights on the Argenta Allotment, met with a range conservationist at the Battle Mountain office for three hours recently to work out how many and where he could graze cattle this year. He already agreed to cut 8,000 AUMs (animal units per month) last year and another 11,000 this year, reduction of more than 1,000 head of cattle. His AUMs were cut 50 percent in the 1960s.

Tomera told Steninger he could understand not being allowed to graze if there was not sufficient forage, but that the past three months had brought moisture and drought relief to Mount Lewis, where he planned to graze cattle this summer.

But Furtado told Steninger, “They see green grass out there and all they see is forage for grazing. It is not forage, it is recovery.”

After the three-hour meeting Tomera and his wife, Lynn, had at the BLM office in Battle Mountain Tomera agreed to the 11,000 AUM reduction.  He said the range conservationist agreed with the plan. He drove home and found a phone message from the BLM that it was closing the allotment completely.

“I have worked hard my entire life to get along with the BLM and I have never been cited for trespass,” he was quoted as saying. “But then one man with some sort of vendetta comes in and, with a snap of his fingers, he makes a decision that can ruin the lives of my family. It’s terrible.”

How many businesses can afford to simply stop making money for a year?

Furtado said the range conservationist did not have the authority to make an agreement. “Staff cannot make management decisions. They don’t have the authority. They just make recommendations to management,” he said.

Tomera plans to hire his own range expert to counter BLM’s claims. Attorney and Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber is representing him. But a legal fight against the deathless, well-funded BLM is a generations-long endeavor. All the original Hage family members are dead, yet the court fight has not ended.

Tomera said he has 1,800 cows and calves on his private land but he will run out of feed by the end of the month.

Tomera is inviting people to come and look at the allotment for themselves at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 17. Nevada’s congressional representatives are being invited along with state representatives and county commissioners from Lander, Elko, Eureka, Humboldt and White Pine counties.

Ironically, the Elko paper today also carries an invitation from the BLM to participate in “a review aimed at creating a more dynamic and durable way of developing the Resource Management Plans that guide its efforts.”

“As I’ve met with elected leaders and citizens from across the West on BLM issues, I’ve consistently heard two things: first, the BLM needs to more effectively address landscape-level management challenges; and second, planning takes too long.” BLM Director Neil Kornze is quoted as saying. “We’re listening to you and we are stepping forward to improve the way we work so we can make our process more flexible in planning across landscapes, more dynamic and responsive to change and less time consuming.”

The rest of the notice is pure, indecipherable bureaucratic jargon.

What doubly disturbing about the BLM kicking cattle of the range is that the grass will continue to grow and in the hot summer months will become kindling for wildfire that devastate the very creatures the BLM claims to protect — sage grouse, desert tortoises, deer, elk, rabbits, foxes, etc. — roughly three critters for every acre burned.

“With all the rain we’ve had the last three months, those mountains will be a tinderbox if the grass is not grazed off,” Gerber was quoted as saying. “Think of all the sage grouse, deer and other animals that will be killed if that mountain burns.” Gerber is the “father” of Smoked Bear, the mascot for preventing wildfire by properly grazing off the fuel.

Smoked Bear