American West defies land laws

FROM RUPERT CORNWELL

in Washington

In an extraordinary legal move, the Clinton administration has started proceedings against a remote Nevada county to try to stamp out a gathering rebellion against federal ownership and control of vast swaths of land across the American West.

Under a lawsuit filed this week, the Justice Department is seeking a court ruling against Nye County, a 20,000-square mile chunk of grazing and scrubland in southern and central Nevada, which is claiming ownership of public lands and has threatened to prosecute US government employees for enforcing federal land management laws.

But the action is intended for far wider consumption, by the scores of counties across states ranging from California to Idaho, New Mexico and Oregon that have either begun or are planning identical challenges to the century-old system of federal land, much of it forest but which also contains precious grazing, mineral and water resources.

The struggle is not new: an earlier "Sagebrush Rebellion", pitting Western politicians against Washington, occurred in the Seventies; only two years ago, in one of his first legislative setbacks, President Bill Clinton was forced to roll back scheduled increases in grazing and other fees charged by the federal government, when faced with similar opposition.

But the Republican sweep of Congress, fuelled by intense anti-Washington sentiment across the country, has changed the political equation. Emboldened, much of the rural West is taking steps to regain what it believes is rightfully its own.

In the case of Nye County, the quarrel erupted over repairs on a road across federal land which county authorities carried out without approval from the federal government. When a national forest officer tried to halt the work, he was ignored, and later faced criminal charges for interfering with the local authorities. Nye County's district attorney refused to go ahead with the case and was voted out of his job.

Indeed, so strong are local feelings, and so real the risk of violence, that the Justice Department lawsuit has been very carefully constructed. It does not throw down the gauntlet with specific criminal charges of its own against Nye County officials, but seeks to nullify local resolutions claiming control of the federal land. Even so, it will do nothing to boost Mr Clinton's political standing in the West.

Most experts believe the law is on Washington's side. So too is the environmental movement, which fears that unless federal ownership is preserved, some of America's most spectacular wild places will be laid waste by farming, mining and building development.

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