Aging sagebrush rebel keeps up fight against feds

AP News
Posted: Nov 27, 2011 4:09 PM
Aging sagebrush rebel keeps up fight against feds

A 75-year-old lawyer who fought private property rights battles alongside Idaho U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth and her Nevada rancher husband Wayne Hage in the 1990s is still cultivating the Sagebrush Rebellion's roots.

Fred Kelly Grant has been slowed by age and heart surgery, but he's in demand from counties _ and tea partyers who attend his $150-per-person seminars _ as conservative elements in the West's continue to clash with the federal government.

California's Siskiyou County is paying Grant $10,000 to help block removal of four Klamath River dams. Montana and Idaho counties have enlisted him to trim hated wolf populations and thwart U.S. Forest Service road closures.

What Grant preaches is "coordination," the theory that federal agencies by law must deal with local governments when revising their public land travel plans or protecting endangered species. Grant insists he's not reviving the discredited "county supremacy" movement, in which a Nevada county once threatened federal employees with prosecution.

"This is not nullification," simply ignoring federal mandates, he told The Associated Press. "Coordination is working within the system to try and make the system work."

Hage, who died in 2006, epitomized the Sagebrush Rebellion by battling the federal government over water rights. Chenoweth, killed the same year in a car crash, worried that federal agents would arrive aboard black helicopters to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

Grant, a former federal prosecutor in Maryland who once helped guide Stewards of the Range, the Hage family's property-rights nonprofit, started his own foundation last year. He, a son and daughter-in-law now give seminars, often to tea party groups, on how locals can demand coordination when Washington, D.C. isn't listening.

Grant insists he's no radical, but he's not above fanning the flames. In 2009, he told a crowd angry about road closures in California's Shasta-Trinity National Forest that he once dismissed those who claimed the United Nations and U.S. government sought to eliminate people from public land as crackpots who saw "a communist behind every sagebrush."

"I thought it was a conspiratorial theory," Grant said, in video footage. "It's not."

Some environmentalists are dubious of Grant's "coordination," saying it's so much fodder on the conservative rubber-chicken circuit for a restive Western audience long unhappy with federal management of vast tracts of public land.

"He's saying a county should adopt its own plan, and the federal government is obliged to make sure its plan is consistent with the local plan," said Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds Project director in Hailey, Idaho. "It's nullification by another name."

Grant insists federal courts side with him.

In 2001, a U.S. District Court judge in Utah ordered the Bureau of Land Management to remove wild horses resettled in Uintah County, in part because the agency didn't coordinate with local officials.

"Coordination does not mean the county gets its way," Grant said. "What it means is, the federal government should be discussing policy with the county, and considering alternatives."

He cites Idaho's Owyhee County, where he says coordination between locals and the BLM beginning in 1990 resolved grazing disputes _ and led to ranchers' support for 500,000 acres of federally protected wilderness created here in 2009.

In California's Modoc County, officials say coordination begun in 1993 helped resolve disputes, including halting plans to curtail grazing.

"The federal government is the one that's ultimately calling the shots on the federal land," said Tim Burke, BLM field manager in Alturas, Calif. "But the federal government is definitely interested in what the county has to say."

Idaho's Benewah and Custer counties and Montana's Ravalli County enlisted Grant's help as they aim to reduce wolves and reopen backcountry roads closed by the Forest Service and BLM.

"They're not giving us a say in how they're managing our land," said Custer County Commissioner Doyle Lamb.

Ravalli County Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher says he's seen some changes in how federal agencies in Montana respond to counties, but says time will tell if they're taking coordination seriously.

"In the view of coordination, counties aren't a stakeholder _ they're a partner," he said.

Almost nowhere has Grant's message resonated more deeply than in California's Siskiyou County, in 14,179-foot Mt. Shasta's shadow. "Coordination" became a catch phrase in the battle over whether four Klamath River dams should be dynamited to help endangered salmon.

Craig Tucker, a spokesman for the Karuk Indian Tribe that favors dam removal, first heard the word after Grant gave a seminar in nearby Redding in 2009 attended by dam-removal foes.

"Now, when those guys open their mouths, the first thing they start talking about is coordination," Tucker said. "It seems to me Fred Kelly Grant has sold people a bill of goods that amounts to snake oil."

Jim Cook, a Siskiyou commissioner who attended Grant's Redding seminar, said Tucker and federal managers dismiss coordination at their own peril.

Maybe it's not a silver bullet, "but you do make them explain why they do things," Cook said. "That makes the agencies squirm. It asks, `Can you come in front of a judge and explain why you blew this policy off?' "

In an Oct. 19 letter, Cook threatened U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with a lawsuit for "failing to coordinate your dam destruction decision with Siskiyou County. We will not stand idly by and allow you to continue to violate the law," Cook wrote.

Salazar's agency responded Nov. 4, citing 27 meetings with county officials since 2010.

Department of Interior lawyers contend Cook misinterprets federal laws purporting to require coordination.

"We're under no obligation to actually coordinate with these entities," said federal Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Pete Lucero. "What this really boils down to is the fact that we don't agree. The fact that we fail to agree does not mean there's a failure to cooperate with each other."