Wind in the buffalo grass

By Sam Packard
web posted October 11, 1999

Protecting the past for future generations means different things to different people. Protection as envisioned by the federal government seems to mean that regarding historical or environmental preservation it's either the government's way or no way. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) is a federal law which includes a felony threshold of $500 for destruction or tampering with historical sites. But apparently this law and others are selectively applied. Citizens of the United States are punished if they break them but there is no accountability required of the federal agencies which administer them.

"Manifesto" Destiny

Faced with eviction from the last remnant of its traditional homeland in Death Valley National Park, on March 7, 1996 the Death Valley Timbisha Shoshone Tribe found that the Park Service would be removing them from trust land within the Park even though they had been granted an exception by virtue of the California Desert Protection Act. During negotiations with the federal government the Timbisha Shoshone Land Restoration Committee which included anthropologist Dr. Catherine S. Fowler of the University of Nevada, Reno laid the foundation for the Tribe's restoration proposal. The Timbisha who had remained in Death Valley abandoned many of their traditional practices rather than go through what was for them an odd and humiliating process of obtaining special use permits from the Park Service to carry out activities considered a regular part of their daily lives.

In the summer when the Timbasha would leave Death Valley to escape the heat and return to their traditional summer camps the Park Service had a policy of bulldozing vacated homes. According to the Timbasha Shoshone Land Restoration Committee the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior either do not understand or choose to ignore the importance and relationship between tribal land ownership and cultural preservation. In the words of Pauline Esteves, Acting Tribal Chairperson and Tribal elder: "Since 1933, the National Park Service has done everything in its power to deny the Tribe's historical claims, pretend we do not exist, and to get us out of the Park." The Tribe blames Bruce Babbitt and the Park Service for overlooking the fact that the land and natural resources have sustained this desert people for thousands of years.

In a Cabin--In a Canyon

Somewhere in central Nevada is a canyon with lush green grass, wildflowers, pinion pine and junipers set in the dramatic beauty of steep red scoria rock cliffs. The nearest paved highway is miles from the unpaved back roads which lead into Meadow Canyon in the Monitor Valley. Perched on the left side of the narrow canyon road is a red stone cabin whose history may go back a hundred years. With the dignity of a New England rock wall and the beauty of the red cliffs behind it the structure might have had an indefinite life. However, according to locals, several years ago the Forest Service graded the road into the canyon and accidently clipped a cabin wall destroying a corner of its foundation. Because of that the building will probably not survive many more years in the harsh elements at its 11,000 foot elevation.

An honest mistake? Perhaps. In this beautiful remote area Nevada's first governor Taskar Oddie lived and made a mining fortune and in this place Will James earned experience as a cowboy inspiring him to write such western classics as Smokey. But the grandeur of human effort and sweat don't seem important to federal agencies in preserving the western legacy which have the misfortune of being located in or near a designated "wilderness" area. In addition, the ranchers who have lived in the region for generations are fewer in number-mostly driven out by the administration of Forest Service and BLM rules which in effect has denied them their livelihood. Apparently the only opinion that counts is the government's -- influenced by special interests-of how things should be.

Roads No Longer Taken

Besides destroying man made structures, federal agencies from the Department of the Interior are consciously destroying thousands of roads which lead into the back country of the intermountain West including Nevada. These back roads, some of which have historical importance and have been used for years, are being obliterated in the name of protecting historic sites or to reduce erosion and degradation of wildlife. These are noble sounding goals but all too often the thrust of this federal policy is to disallow use by locals or any one else.

The historic town of Jarbridge, Nevada in Elko county has had its own experience with Bruce Babbitt's Interior Department and radical environmentalists' sterile version of wilderness. These forces are playing judge, jury and executioner to history. In the Old West tradition, Jarbridge is a town with many of the same characteristics as Virginia City. The destruction of Jarbridge is taking place because of a historic road which runs near a river where yet another endangered species has been discovered. But the conveniently and newly endangered trout is merely the excuse. The real objective is to establish more wilderness area for the designer-hiking- boot crowd.

In May of 1995, the Jarbridge River flooded and took out a section of South Canyon road which leads into a federal wilderness area. The destructive effect of the water had even changed the river channel. The road had been in use since 1909 and was considered a county road which ran through federally administered lands. As is customary the Forest Service used delaying tactics and reneged on its promise to help the county fix the road. Furthermore, they set up a log barricade on the section of the road used by locals to block access and this meant that the Wilderness area now had a three mile (hikers only) extension. After a Jarbridge citizen reopened the road with his bulldozer the feds responded with accusations, fines, lawsuits and an overnight discovery of an endangered species. All the red tape was created in order to keep what they had obtained through obstruction, delay and neglect.

In the Name of Wilderness

"Deep ecology becomes something real when it motivates our day-to-day actions, and there is no more honorable thing any of us can do with our lives than to work to put part of the world off-limits to the activities of human beings." So says David Foreman self proclaimed eco-terrorist and head of Earth First. Has that attitude permeated the federal land bureaucracies? The evidence indicates it has. Dave Foreman and Earth First are part of a broad movement to set aside huge chunks of the United States so that large mammals such as grizzly bears and wolves will have plenty of room to romp. Their vision consists of pockets of humanity surrounded by immense expanses of "wildlands." Human beings will be severely restricted or not allowed in these lands set aside for animals.

Since the federal land agencies are connected to the environmental movement through the exchange of information, money and mutual goals the "wildlands" project may not be the mere fantasy of environmental extremists. Federal bureaucratic interpretation of such laws as the Wilderness Act, Federal Land Management Act, and the Endangered Species and Antiquities Acts has meant that all signs of human habitation and easy access into wilderness areas are eventually going to be "history." More and more federal land is off limits to human use. Recreationists, hunters, miners, loggers, and ranchers are finding themselves struggling under a system of stringent permits and regulations. Many times, innocent actions have become crimes and carry stiff criminal penalties. For instance, merely possessing an eagle feather which has fallen naturally from a raptor may mean a hefty fine and time in jail. There are people in federal prison for committing such "crimes."

Memory Hole

In the novel 1984 historian and science fiction writer George Orwell predicted an ominous out-of-control state which destroys inconvenient or unauthorized history by tossing it down a laser-like "memory hole." In the name of saving wilderness an arrogant segment of the environmental movement and the federal government have been creating a contemporary "memory hole" within the United States.

Demolishing historical structures and roads in order to accomplish well intentioned but misguided ends is to deny the richness and wealth of the American West's living history. Such short sighted, thoughtless policies and actions are hastening the day when the western way of life and western history will become in Chief Red Cloud's poetic words, "like the wind in the buffalo grass."

Sam Packard has written extensively for newspapers and magazines in the West. As a former resident of Virginia City, Nevada and a Western historian he has a deep appreciation for all things Western. You may contact Sam at

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