Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing? Who Really wins?

The History, Many Times, is forgotten at the expense of the locals and their Children. Just Ask the Fuentes about the Patch of Heaven

BEATTY — Environmentalists are taking over this faded mining town 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, but many locals don’t seem to mind.

The Nature Conservancy is now the largest private landowner in this part of Nye County, where the national environmental group is working with local residents to recast the area as a preserve for sensitive desert wildlife and a destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

The conservancy closed on its latest acquisition Wednesday: a working, 900-acre cattle ranch at the headwaters of the Amargosa River north of Beatty that could one day become a living laboratory for conservation work, though ranching will continue.

The $2 million purchase more than doubles its already extensive holdings along the lush ribbon of riparian habitat known as the Oasis Valley.

“I don’t have a concern with that like I might have 10 years ago, because they’ve demonstrated they’re willing to work with us. That’s important to us,” said David Spicer, one of the conservancy’s neighbors near Beatty.

Spicer is a rancher, miner and businessman who has lived in the Beatty area nearly all his life. He’s also the leader of a local, decades-long campaign to protect the native Amargosa toad and keep it off the endangered species list.

He said the Nature Conservancy has been an important partner from the beginning.

“We’ve had a relationship with them for more than 20 years now,” said Spicer, who heads a nonprofit of his own: Saving Toads thru Off-Road Racing, Ranching & Mining in Oasis Valley or STORM-OV for short.

As a result of the grassroots effort in Beatty, much of the rare amphibian’s habitat along the river has been protected without cutting off access to the land or burying local residents in red tape, Spicer said. The toad population is now considered healthy and stable, with numbers in the thousands.

‘The crown jewel’

Through purchase or donation, the conservancy has acquired 8 parcels totaling more than 1,600 acres in and around Beatty since 1999.

The group has mostly avoided the sort of backlash environmentalists often face in rural Nevada by being a good neighbor, said Ryan Tweney, who retired to Beatty 14 years ago and now chairs the town’s library board.

“The Nature Conservancy has been a huge help to the town in terms of preserving what we need to preserve,” he said. “I think it’s great.”

And it doesn’t hurt that the nonprofit organization insists on paying taxes on its holdings, the way any other private landowner would, he said.

The conservancy’s newest property in the area could be the most important, said John Zablocki, Southern Nevada conservation director for the group.

Tucked away behind the hills northeast of U.S. Highway 95, the 7J Ranch is dotted with ponds, wet meadows and rich pastureland fed by more than a dozen springs. The ranch is bracketed by Joshua trees on one side and sagebrush on the other, marking the transition zone between the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert.

Zablocki calls it “the crown jewel of the Oasis Valley.”

Len Warren, Amargosa River project manager for the conservancy, has lots of ideas for the 900-acre spread. As he walked around the property on a recent Friday, he pointed out where native trees could be planted to to provide bird habitat or where a pond stocked with bass might be converted into a safe haven for the Amargosa toad and endemic springfish like the Oasis Valley speckled dace.

“Our dreams are for it to be turned into an example of how you balance livestock grazing, environmental research and habitat restoration,” Warren said. “We don’t have all the answers yet.”

Zablocki pictures the ranch as a research station, where scientists from the conservancy and elsewhere can conduct real-world experiments on private land without having to go through lengthy federal regulatory reviews.

“We could try out solutions on our own property,” he said.

Home on the range

Some things won’t change at the 7J.

Zablocki said the property will continue to house a livestock operation, with the previous owner running cattle there under a lease with the conservancy.

Longtime Nevada rancher Hank Brackenbury said he bought the 7J about four years ago. “Poverty” is what persuaded him to sell the place to the environmental group, he said.

“I had a pretty big ranch payment,” he said.

This way, he gets to keep raising beef cattle on the land, and the Nature Conservancy gets a crash course in ranching from someone who knows a thing or two.

“It’s all here. The potential is all here,” Brackenbury said. “It’s been a good ranch for a lot of years, and if it can continue to be a good ranch, that’d be good.”

The purchase price included grazing rights on 280,000 acres of federal land surrounding the ranch, much of it unfenced and bordered by a massive Air Force bombing range to the east. The property is also within sight of Yucca Mountain, proposed repository site for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.

“I tell everybody, ‘I live closer to Yucca Mountain than anyone. I’ll be the first to glow,’” Brackenbury said.

There are about 75 head of cattle on the property right now, he said, but the range can handle more than twice that amount when conditions are good.

Zablocki said the conservancy’s new pastures also could serve as a regional “grass bank,” providing relief forage for other Nevada ranchers stricken by wildfire or drought.

“We actually need grazing as a rangeland management tool,” he said.

Greener pastures ahead

Zablocki said this should be the conservancy’s last big purchase in the Beatty area for a while.

“Our goal was never to buy up the whole town,” he said. “We want whatever we do to be a benefit for this community.”

To that end, the organization is working with a prominent local business owner on a dog park and trail system that will lead visitors down to the Amargosa River from the edge of his parking lot. Warren and company also have plans for more boardwalks, signs and native trees at the Torrance Ranch Preserve, the conservancy’s oldest habitat restoration project in the area.

The broader goal, one shared by the conservancy and locals like Spicer, is to find something new to sustain a once-proud hard rock mining town that’s fallen on hard times. Ecotourism could be the answer.

Warren said Beatty, which is home to fewer than 1,000 people, already serves as a gateway community of sorts for nearby Death Valley National Park.

“We want to entice people to stay a little longer and come back again,” he said.

Spicer has invested heavily in that idea. Over the past five years, he has developed more than 50 miles of mountain bike trails on his ranch and the surrounding public land, and he’s taken to hosting events ranging from Boy Scout campouts to scaled-down versions of Burning Man.

Ultimately, he sees what he’s doing as a way to help the environment and the economy in his beloved valley.

Source: Nevada town embraces environmental group who bought ranch\

Nye County officials step in on Patch of Heaven struggle | Pahrump Valley Times

Nye County residents Victor and Annette Fuentes have been embroiled in a longstanding battle over water with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now, Nye County officials are stepping in to request federal assistance for the couple.

Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly and Nye County Commission Chairman John Koenig sent a letter to the White House on April 5. The letter requests direct intervention by President Donald Trump, asking him to address the situation and force the USFWS to return the water to the Fuentes’ 40-acre private property, Patch of Heaven Christian Camp, which is located within Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

“The Fuenteses are continuing to be denied the full measure of water granted to them first by nature and second by the Office of the Nevada State Engineer in Ruling #6348,” Wehrly wrote to the White House Office of Political Affairs. “We would greatly appreciate the president’s assistance in urging the USFWS to repair the diversion, channel the water back into its original path, the path that God and geology chose millennia ago, and return the disturbed land back to its original state.”

The problem all started almost eight years ago when the USFWS constructed a diversion channel that altered the course of water down the Carson Slough, ultimately redirecting the water flow away from the Fuentes’ property. Without the water, the Fuentes’ land began to dry up and their business of the Patch of Heaven Christian Camp, which is part of Ministerio Roca Solida Ingelsia Cristiana, started to suffer.

Pahrump Valley Times Victor and Annette Fuentes stand in front of a flooded approach to their church camp in this 2007 file photo. The property has dramatically changed since then, due to U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s diversion of the natural water way that brought life to the Patch of Heaven property.

“We bought the property in November of 2006 and we actually started working on it in 2007. Then in 2010, the USFWS diverted the streams that had flowed to the property since the 1800s, they diverted that off our land,” Annette explained in an interview on April 11. “They did it illegally and unlawfully, without getting the appropriate permits from entities like the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA and others. So we went to court. And we are still in the U.S. Federal Court of Claims over this.”

Annette stated that throughout the years since the couple’s lawsuit was filed, the diversion has caused a frustrating mixture of dry, dusty conditions a majority of the time and periods of frightening flooding that damage the land and put a pinch on their business.

“We’ve lost our trees, we’ve lost our grass and we’ve lost a lot of business as well. The water was something that set us apart from other church camps and retreats. It’s a rarity in the Nevada desert, it was an oasis. And now that’s all changed,” she said. “On top of that, the USFWS didn’t account for any rainfall when they built their diversion channel so the water jumps the banks and floods us out whenever it rains. It’s dangerous, flooding. It’s horrible, it’s scary and it tears up our land.”

However, fixing the situation is no easy task. The Fuenteses have been struggling to have the water fully restored to their property since 2010 and that effort is still underway.

“The Nevada state engineer ruled in our favor in 2016 for them to put the water back. When the state engineer ruled they should put the water back, USFWS did not agree with that and they told the engineer that they were going to run a pipe, run a pump, pump some water into a tank and then into the original ditch,” Annette explained. “As it is, there are nothing but problems with that system.”

Wehrly touched on this in her letter as well, writing, “The amount of water provided to them produces a flow of water approximately 15 feet to stagnant water and ceases, soaking into barren ground. The pump is non-operational on a regular basis… The state engineer’s ruling confirms the Fuentes’ right to the water. However, the USFWS has not returned the flow of water down Carson Slough from their diversionary, man-made alternate ditch project back into its original path… The water provided is less than one percent of the water historically flowing down Carson Slough. In other words, the USFWS has retained 99 percent of the diverted water…”

An obviously angry Annette stated, “You know what they said to me about that? ‘Take us to court.’”

Pahrump Valley Times Victor and Annette Fuentes stand in front of a flooded approach to their church camp in this 2007 file photo. The property has dramatically changed since then, due to U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s diversion of the natural water way that brought life to the Patch of Heaven property.

That is just what the Fuenteses are doing. “We are still in the court of federal claims, for takings,” she said, “And we are very, very happy to see officials backing us on this. It’s been a long battle and a lot of pushing but it looks like finally they are all getting on board. At least the sheriff and some of the commissioners are. We’re absolutely thankful for their help with this.”

Koenig said the idea to pen a letter to Washington D.C. was Wehrly’s and he asked to be a co-signer in an attempt to add weight to the request. As for the outcome, Koenig said, “What we are hoping is that somehow this gets to someone in Washington who can order these miscreants to do what is right and return the land to the way it was.”

Those wishing to learn more about the situation will have the opportunity next weekend when the Patch of Heaven Rally and Open House is held. On April 20, 21 and 22 the refuge camp will open to the public and Ryan Bundy, who is running for Nevada governor this year, will host a “water rights summit” the first evening. Annette encouraged the public to attend.

“We want people to be able to take a look and see what’s been done,” she invited. “It’s like so many people have told me. They heard about it but they didn’t really understand it until they were out there, looking at it. You just can’t describe it. You have to see it to fully grasp it.”

When reached regarding the subject, USFWS representatives responded, “The service is not able to comment on pending litigation.”

Source: Nye County officials step in on Patch of Heaven struggle | Pahrump Valley Times

Feds restore small portion of creek to Amargosa Valley church’s property | Pahrump Valley Times

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diverted the creek away from the Ministerio Roca Solida where Victor and Annette Fuentes, the leaders of the ministry, had founded the Patch of Heaven c …In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diverted the creek away from the Ministerio Roca Solida where Victor and Annette Fuentes, the leaders of the ministry, had founded the Patch of Heaven church camp. The diversion resulted in repeated flooding of the church’s property. The federal government argued that it has no liability for the flooding. Special to the Pahrump Valley Times

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restored the flow of a small portion of the water to the property owned by Ministerio Roca Solida in Amargosa Valley.

In November, the state gave the Fish and Wildlife Service 90 days to return water to Ministerio Roca Solida, a private church ministry located in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, after the investigation found several violations of the terms of the ministry’s water permits.

The issue originated more than 6 ½ years ago when the Fish and Wildlife Service diverted the creek away from the Ministerio Roca Solida where Victor and Annette Fuentes, the leaders of the ministry, had founded the Patch of Heaven church camp. The agency cited the need to preserve endangered species, including the Ash Meadows speckled dace that inhabit the refuge.

Joseph Becker, director of Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, who represents the Fuentes, issued a brief statement following the restoration of the creek.

“While Pastor Victor Fuentes continues his legal fight to have the desert spring-fed stream and his church camp restored to its pre-unlawful diversion conditions, he nevertheless welcomes the trickle of water now returned to his property via a small pipe and solar-powered pump,” Becker said.

Becker said that restoring a small trickle of water to the church’s property won’t fix the flood damage that has already occurred as a consequence of diversion of the water, nor will it prevent flood damage from occurring in the future.

Despite no previous record of flooding, the church’s camp has been flooded four times since the Fish and Wildlife Service diverted a stream which, prior to 2010, had traversed the church’s private property since at least as early as the late 1800s.

Becker repeatedly said that Fish and Wildlife officials moved the waterway without the requisite Clean Water Act permits being procured from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or approval from Nye County officials enforcing FEMA regulations.

In depositions taken pursuant to the lawsuits waged by Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice on the church’s behalf, government witnesses have already testified that the artificial channel into which they diverted water was never designed or built to accommodate the amount of water flow historically carried in the water’s former path, Becker said.

In the meantime, Becker said Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice will continue its legal fight against the United States in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims for the government’s taking of the church’s vested water rights along with a taking of the 40-acre property itself, “given the repetitive flooding which has occurred and is certain to continue as a result of the United States government’s illegal and ill-conceived action with the spring-fed stream.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southern Nevada did not return requests for comment by press time.

Source: Feds restore small portion of creek to Amargosa Valley church’s property | Pahrump Valley Times

Federal court rejects attempt to dismiss church’s takings claim in Amargosa Valley | Pahrump Valley Times

A ruling from America’s trial court for “takings” issues under the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights has rejected arguments central to the federal government’s case.

In an opinion and order filed Tuesday, Nov. 29, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Elaine D. Kaplan denied a government motion to dismiss the church’s takings claim, stating that the government’s arguments for dismissal “lack merit.”

Joseph Becker of Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, who represents the church, called the motion “the church’s major victory over the federal government.”

“Judge Kaplan’s decision is a very large step forward for the Patch of Heaven church camp in what has now become a five-year-plus court battle between the church and and the federal government,” Becker said.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diverted the creek away from the Ministerio Roca Solida where Victor and Annette Fuentes, the leaders of the ministry, had founded the Patch of Heaven church camp. The agency cited the need to preserve endangered species, including the Ash Meadows speckled dace that inhabit the refuge.

The diversion also resulted in repeated flooding of the church’s property.

The federal government had argued that it bears no liability for the flooding and that the church had no rights to the water that had previously traversed its property.

Becker argued in the documents that the federal government violated multiple constitutional rights in one fell swoop in August 2010.

The Ministerio Roca Solida has since filed a complaint for the tort and due process and free-exercise claims in the U.S. District Court for Nevada. In 2012, the church also filed a takings claim in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, along with a motion to stay proceedings in that court pending the outcome of the injunctive relief sought in the U.S. District Court.

The federal government argued before the Court of Federal Claims that the plaintiff could not pursue all its claims. The Court of Federal Claims held that the church could not bring a takings claim in the Federal Court of Claims while seeking relief for other government transgressions in the U.S. District Court.

“Because of the federal agency’s dangerously negligent construction of the diversion channel, never competently engineered to accommodate rain or runoff waters, a mini-grand canyon now cuts through what were once lush wetlands,” Becker said.

The Nevada Division of Water Resources recently said that Roca Solida Ministry had vested rights to the water.

On Nov. 4, the state of Nevada ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to return the water to its “historic path” within 90 days. The agency could face administrative fines of up to $10,000 per day until corrective action is taken.

Source: Federal court rejects attempt to dismiss church’s takings claim in Amargosa Valley | Pahrump Valley Times

State orders feds to return water to private ministry | Pahrump Valley Times

Victor Fuentes, leader of the Ministerio Roca Solida, and Joseph Becker, director of Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, stand in the middle of the …Victor Fuentes, leader of the Ministerio Roca Solida, and Joseph Becker, director of Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, stand in the middle of the swath of land that had been carved away by repeated floods. Courtesy of Nevada Policy Research Institute

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to return water to Ministerio Roca Solida, a private church ministry located in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, according to the state.

On Nov. 4, the Nevada Division of Water Resources ordered the federal agency to cease diversion of water through the Ministerio Roca Solida parcel after the investigation found several violations of the terms of the ministry’s water permits.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diverted the creek away from the Ministerio Roca Solida where Victor and Annette Fuentes, the leaders of the ministry, had founded the Patch of Heaven church camp. The agency cited the need to preserve endangered species, including the Ash Meadows speckled dace that inhabit the refuge.

“Getting the water returned would be a major first step in making the ministry whole, after years of suffering litigation and egregious constitutional violations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Joseph Becker, director of Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, who represents the Fuentes.

Becker argued that the diversion of the waterway and taking of the ministry’s vested water rights was done without the Clean Water Act permits, in violation of Federal Emergency Management Agency requirements, and with no regard for the ministry’s use of the water for baptisms.

The diversion also resulted in repeated flooding of the church’s property.

The federal government, however, has denied any liability for the flooding and argued that the ministry had no rights to the water that had traversed its property.

While the order from the Nevada Division of Water Resources verified the institute’s claim that the ministry’s vested water rights were violated, the ministry continues to suffer “significant damage and constitutional violations,” Becker said.

“The ministry still suffered significant harm in the interim from the federal government’s actions, including repeated flooding and five years of flood damage resulting from the illegal water diversion project,” Becker said.

He called the state’s order a boost to the “takings” case against the Fish and Wildlife that was brought by the Nevada Policy Research Institute for diverting water from the Ministerio Roca Solida. The case is currently pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Fish and Wildlife has multiple water rights within the refuge that are on file with the State Engineer. The entity said that it had acquired these permits “to re-establish historic natural drainage patterns and wetlands within the refuge.”

“Although the USFWS said that its intention in acquiring those permits was to re-establish historic natural drainage courses within the refuge, the evidence presented by the Division of Water Resources demonstrates that the source of the Carson Slough historically traversed through the Solida parcel,” Nevada Division of Water Resources said in the documents.

According to the order from the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must return the water to its “historic path” traversing the church property, within 90 days, or face administrative fines up to $10,000 per day until corrective action is taken.

Failure to take corrective action will result in the matter being referred for additional action available to the state engineer.

Possible penalties for noncompliance can include payment of an administrative fine not exceeding $10,000 per day for each violation, replacement of not more than 200 percent of the water used, and payment of the costs of the proceeding, including investigative costs and attorney’s fees.

Source: State orders feds to return water to private ministry | Pahrump Valley Times

Church claims damages to property exceed $3 million | Pahrump Valley Times

The Ministerio Roca Solida, a founder of the Patch of Heaven church camp, filed a new takings claim in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., saying that the damages to its property have grown over $3 million since the diversion of the creek on the property.

In a claim filed on July 12, the Ministerio Roca Solida alleges an unconstitutional taking of the 40-acre property located in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and the loss of its vested water rights for the past 5 years.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diverted the creek from the property where Victor and his wife Annette Fuentes, the leaders of the Ministerio Roca Solida had founded the Patch of Heaven church camp. The agency cited the need to preserve endangered species, including the Ash Meadows speckled dace that inhabit the refuge.

Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation Director Joe Becker, who represents the Fuentes’, said the Ministerio Roca Solida filed three takings claims since 2010. The first two claims were dismissed with prejudice, which means that the plaintiff still has the right to further litigate when certain conditions are satisfied.

“(In this case,) a takings claim is a claim against the federal government where the government has taken private property, purportedly for a public purpose, without paying just compensation as required by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Becker said.

Becker argued that since the diversion of the creek, the Fuentes’ land and its appurtenances have been flooded four times – the type of flooding that had never occurred before.

“Because of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s actions more than five years ago, less and less rainfall now results in greater and greater flooding,” Becker said.

Erosion from repeated floods has carved large swaths of washes on the 40-acre property, according to the documents.

“And, because of the federal government’s dangerously negligent construction of the channel — never engineered to accommodate any rain or runoff waters — the damage has been compounding. A mini-grand canyon now cuts through what was once lush wetlands, and the significant improvements made to structures and the land for the benefit of young campers are being undone with each recurring flood,” Becker said.

A complaint stated that the Ministerio Roca Solida now finds it “highly problematic” to make its camp available to groups who have historically used the facilities, because less rain results in a greater likelihood of more severe flooding and more severe flood danger.

Becker said that the movement of the waterway and taking of the ministry’s vested water rights was done without the requisite Clean Water Act permits and in violation of FEMA requirements. Becker also said that the movement was done with no regard for the ministry’s religious use of the water for baptisms.

“Sadly, the damage done by this repeated flooding is now so severe, there’s no choice left but to hold the federal government accountable for a complete taking,” Becker said.

Source: Church claims damages to property exceed $3 million | Pahrump Valley Times