Ellen M. Gilmer, E&E News reporter
The latest clash between federal land managers and Sagebrush Rebellion-style critics played out in tense but buttoned-up proceedings yesterday in a quiet courtroom in Washington, D.C.
There, government lawyers urged the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to toss a lawsuit from Nevada landowners who say a federal restoration project stole their water and flooded their land.
At issue is Patch of Heaven, a Christian camp on private land nestled within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
The Nevada church Ministerio Roca Solida bought the 40-acre site in 2006 for $500,000. At the time, a stream called the Carson Slough flowed across the property, feeding plants and a small pond and sometimes serving as a site for baptisms.
In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages all of the surrounding land, rerouted the channel in a restoration project to help the Ash Meadows speckled dace, an endangered fish that lives in the area’s warm springs.
Annette and Victor Fuentes, who own Ministerio Roca Solida, say the government owes them compensation for eliminating the stream from their property — except for a trickle of water the site claimed through a state permit — and rerouting it in a way that causes repeated flooding on another part of the parcel.
The couple teamed up with the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation and attracted the support of Westerners opposed to federal land management, including the Bundy ranching family infamous for its conflicts with government agencies.
Speaking at a boisterous rally at Patch of Heaven last year, Ryan Bundy offered to demolish the FWS project himself (Greenwire, April 23, 2018).
The mood was decidedly tamer during yesterday’s hearing, where just five spectators — including one reporter and one court employee — listened to more than two hours of technical arguments involving property rights, water law and hydrology.
Judge Elaine Kaplan must decide whether to grant the government’s motion for summary judgment rather than allowing the case to proceed to trial.
The church’s claims are twofold: that the government’s elimination of streamflow on the land without payment amounted to an unconstitutional taking of vested water rights, and that the diversion project’s contribution to flooding was also a taking.
Justice Department lawyers yesterday disputed both claims. The government contends the landowners are not entitled to the water rights they claim, and, in any case, that issue should be adjudicated by the state of Nevada, not the Federal Claims court.
The two lawyers from DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division also attempted to poke holes in the Fuenteses’ flooding claims, dismissing the plaintiffs’ expert testimony as unsubstantiated and noting that the broader area is prone to flooding.
“Plaintiffs would like this court to believe … that there was never flooding on that part of the property,” DOJ attorney Davené Walker said, adding that the area is part of a flood zone and has a well-documented history of such events.
Walker explained that to win a takings claim against the government for flooding, the plaintiff must show that FWS caused the flooding and intended or expected it to happen. Ministerio Roca Solida has offered no evidence to support either prong, she said.
Mountain States Legal Foundation lawyer Zhonette Brown, in turn, questioned the evidence presented by the government.
Kaplan, an Obama appointee, agreed with the government that Ministerio Roca Solida’s expert testimony appeared “a little thin,” but she questioned whether it would be appropriate to resolve the case in favor of the United States at this stage, without allowing the church to make its case at trial.
She also empathized with the Fuenteses on their loss of the stream, regardless of whether FWS’s project was lawful.
“I won’t say the word ‘screwed,'” she said of the landowners, eventually landing on the word “injured.”
The judge added that she’s never heard a water rights case or a flooding case before and will need some time to consider the competing evidence.
“Your Honor’s more than welcome to come out to the property,” Brown said, “so you can make your own conclusion.”
The History, Many Times, is forgotten at the expense of the locals and their Children. Just Ask the Fuentes about the Patch of Heaven
By Henry BreanFebruary 17, 2019 – 12:26 am
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.
For a guy with a vague job title, State Engineer Jason King has been involved in some pretty important decisions for Nevada.
During his eight years as the state’s top water regulator, he banned new residential wells in Pahrump, blocked water development for the long-stalled Coyote Springs master-planned community and twice ruled on controversial plans to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from eastern Nevada.
The 57-year-old King retired Friday after a 28-year career as a state employee, including the last eight as state engineer and administrator for the Nevada Division of Water Resources.
Bradley Crowell, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, has appointed King’s current deputy administrator, Tim Wilson, as acting state engineer.
Wilson has been with the Division of Water Resources since 1995. He will inherit several major ongoing water issues, including pending court challenges of King’s most recent actions regarding Pahrump, Coyote Springs and the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s in-state pipeline plans.
Though it might not be obvious from the title, the state engineer is responsible for the appropriation and regulation of all water within the state, except for the Colorado River. The position includes oversight of water well drilling, dam safety, water planning and floodplain management.
In 2012, King granted the water authority some of the groundwater it wants to tap in rural Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties. Then last year, he rescinded those same water rights because of a 2013 court ruling he said he disagreed with but was legally bound to follow.
That decision is now under appeal, as are two other contentious orders he issued since 2017 barring new domestic groundwater wells in Pahrump and prohibiting more pumping by the developers of Coyote Springs. In both of those cases, King said he was acting to protect existing well owners and water levels in aquifers he considered to be severely over-appropriated.
King was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he earned a degree in civil engineering in 1986. He moved to Las Vegas in 1988 and went to work for the Division of Water Resources in 1991, after three years of structural design work in support of underground nuclear testing at what was then known as Nevada Test Site.
When interviewed for a profile in 2011, he told the Review-Journal that he didn’t know anything about Nevada water law when he took the job, but he came to “live and breathe” the subject as he rose through the division’s ranks to state engineer in 2010.
In the same statement, Crowell praised King for his “extraordinary service to Nevada” and for “addressing complex issues head-on with perseverance and integrity.”