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Hold It! This Land Is My Land! : Led by Commissioner Dick Carver, Nevada's Nye County Is Now Ground Zero in the West's War Against the U.S. Government

December 03, 1995|Gary Andrew Poole | Gary Andrew Poole, a free-lance writer based in San Francisco, is working on a book about the county supremacy movement.

Dick Carver stood just outside Room 300 at the U.S. District Courthouse in Las Vegas, Nev., admiring the travertine marble walls. Nervously he tugged at his Wranglers and then removed his straw cowboy hat. You could see that the July heat--or maybe it was the pressure--was causing him to sweat. John Wayne Howard, his attorney, turned to him and whispered a private joke into Carver's sunburned ear. They chuckled. But the laugh wasn't from down deep. It came out like a dry cough.

Carver--who has thick, calloused hands, sparkling blue eyes, a prosperous gut and a passing resemblance to Mickey Rooney--licked his lips. Three hundred supporters stood behind him and gave a whispered cheer. "Good luck, Dick!" "Go get 'em, Carver!" The voices hummed an encouraging ode for nearly a minute, and he twisted and twitched, not knowing where to look. "I'm nervous-- Whoa !--I don't want to lose," he stammered. "I can't lose."

A few hours earlier, at 9 in the morning, Carver had been flush with confidence. He and his ranching buddies, who had driven from Nye County, just 200 miles north of Las Vegas, were relaxing in a dingy casino lounge called the Turf Club. The air conditioners went pushhhhh and cooled them from the 115-degree heat outside.

The conversation turned to whiskey.

"We'll party tonight," said one friend, taking off his cowboy hat and scratching his freshly barbered hair. "I'll buy a round a whiskey 'cause we're gonna win! 99.99%!"

"We're not gonna give up as long as there's a drop of blood in us!" hooted Carver.

But now, about 1 p.m., Dick Carver--Nye County Commissioner, tribune of the county supremacy movement and nemesis to the federal government--took a deep breath and, trying to look assured, walked into the courtroom with his wife, Midge, by his side. He and his buddies and the 300 people cheering him were on a mission, he said, "to end apartheid in the West."

Dick Carver was in court because the federal government is suing Nye County. In 1993, Carver had persuaded his fellow commissioners to pass resolutions 93-48 and 93-49, which demanded ownership and usurped control of "all public lands" within Nye's borders. In effect, Nye County officials claimed that they had the right to arrest federal agents for "trespassing" if they were on National Forest Service land or, for that matter, on a U.S. interstate. As many as 35 other counties in the West, most notably Catron County, N.M., have passed similarly militant legislation. But when Carver, on July 4, 1994, took a rusty D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer and plowed open a road that the National Forest Service had declared closed, he became a beacon for the county supremacy movement. Carver says he was trying to prove a point, "to fire a shot heard 'round the world."

Carver and his supporters claim that the federal government's ownership of 93% of the land in Nye County is illegal. The third-largest county in the country, Nye is 18,064 square miles--about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire--of arid scrub and timber whose population of 20,000 is heavily dependent on ranching and mining on National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands. Since the end of World War II, Nye has been angry with the federal government for its intrusive presence. The county is the home of the Nuclear Test Site, where more than 900 nuclear blasts have gone off since 1951. It also has Nellis Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range within its borders; soldiers from Nellis run maneuvers with tanks and regularly stage mock battles, and Nellis pilots fly over in jets, creating omnipresent sonic booms. What's more, Congress recently declared Nye's Yucca Mountain as the first disposal site for the country's radioactive waste.

Carver's notoriety increased last spring when the Justice Department sued Nye County. Attorneys there make no secret that the bulldozing incident is the principal reason they have targeted Nye. "We're working on county supremacy cases across the West," says Caroline M. Zander, a Department of Justice attorney, "but Nye County is our most high-profile and serious case. Carver really challenged us to a fight."

When informed about the lawsuit, Carver responded with characteristic bravado. "Those jackasses in Washington," he told reporters, "are going to have the surprise of their life."

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