Range war heading for Supreme Court

Rupert Cornwell in Carvers, Nevada, finds a constitutional tussle over land ownership could destroy a Hollywood myth
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Symbolically at least, it all began last 4 July. Dick Carver - cattleman, commissioner of Nye County in Nevada, and would-be rangeland revolutionary - climbed on to his Caterpillar and reopened a washed-out dirt road across the Big Smokey Valley, bulldozing aside US Forest Service officers who had gone there to stop him.

"There were two of them," Mr Carver recounts, pointing from his backyard to the spot where the deed was done - a cleft just below the snowcapped crest of the Toquima Mountains, floating in an eggshell-blue sky above ochre-green vistas stretching away for ever.

"They had guns. Did Dick Carver have a gun? No. One of them stood in front of the Cat with a sign saying 'Stop'. But I just kept going."

The Jefferson Canyon road incident has now joined the folklore of these remote and timeless Nevada backlands. Dick Carver's Independence Day insurrection is the object of a lawsuit by the Justice Department in Washington. Its outcome could transform the constitutional relationship between local, state and central government. It could also plunge the cold knife of legal argument into that most precious Hollywood mythology - how the West was won.

At stake are the vast territories - a third of the entire US and 87 per cent of Nevada, 93 per cent of Nye County - owned in perpetuity by the federal government. So momentous are the implications that only a final shoot-out in the Supreme Court will decide the matter.

"This case is huge, as important in its way as Brown vs Board of Education was for ending school desegregation in 1954," says Ed Presley, a tobacco-chewing county rights advocate and constitutional expert helping to plot the assault.

Trouble in the West is nothing new: as recently as the late Seventies ranchers were in revolt over rules imposed by "Washington bureaucrats" for grazing, mining and protecting the environment on land the ranchers could use but never own. But the first Sagebrush Rebellion fizzled out.

Sagebrush Two, guided by some of the cleverest lawyers in the land, has a bolder strategy. It seeks directly to usurp federal power, acting as if the US government did not exist.

Nye County passed resolutions claiming ownership of federal lands and forests covering most of its territory. Then its lawyers asked Washington to produce documents proving its title or, failing that, to abide by the "equal footing" doctrine enshrined in US laws, whereby new states enjoy the same relationship with central government as those already in the Union.

No documents were forthcoming. From Nye's standpoint, all that was missing was a test case.

Jefferson Canyon road, a mining and stagecoach route in existence well before Nevada Territory achieved statehood in 1864, and which the Forest Service refused to reopen on environmental grounds, was perfect.

At 18,000 square miles, Nye County is nearly half England's size, but inhabited by 24,000 people. Nearly 2,000 live in the town founded by, and named after, Mr Carver's rancher father who migrated from California nearly 60 years ago. Nye contains, inter alia, the US nuclear test site (reports of an imminent reactivation have abounded lately) as well as several airforce bases and military experimental ranges, including the eerie "Area-51" or "Dreamland" developing ground for the aircraft of the future, whose existence the Pentagon denies.

The most powerful argument against Sagebrush Two - made by Nevada's Governor Bob Miller among others - is that the counties are pushing their luck too far just as devolution is the watchword of the Gingrich/Dole Republican Congress, more sympathetic to the cause of states' and local rights than any legislature in decades.

Then there is an image problem after Oklahoma City. At its most radical edge, the county movement blurs into the anti-government paranoia of the militias, both nurtured by the autarchic myths of the Old West.

In March, a federal office was bombed in Carson City, northern Nevada, while Oregon rancher Dwight Hammonds was arrested earlier this year when he threatened to kill federal agents who fenced off a waterhole used by his cattle. In many areas, government workers have been told to travel in pairs and keep in constant radio contact.

"It's embarrassing, and it's nonsense," insists Mr Carver. But Mr Presley is less sure: "We are in a revolution in this country, with some threat of violence, even though we absolutely don't advocate it."

For the time being though, legal briefs rather than bullets will be flying. Just as supporters hoped, Mr Carver's stand at the Jefferson Canyon forced the Federal Government to sue. The case of US vs Nye County opens in Las Vegas on 28 July.

The county movement may have its battery of constitutional experts; so, too, has Washington, which will argue that the West was not won by settlers, but by the federal government, through purchase, treaty and military conquest.

Also arrayed against Mr Carver are environmentalists, urban do-gooders and a condescending East Coast establishment. All argue that unchecked county power will turn the grand old American West into a Third World disaster, picked bare by every hardnosed multinational on the face of the planet.