SALT LAKE CITY — A group of ranchers and their families are saddling up in protest of federal land management policies, delivering petitions and their message to Washington, D.C., in a 20-day, coast-to-coast horseback ride.
The Grass March Cowboy Express began Friday against the backdrop of a California coastal sunrise at Bodega Bay and is scheduled to cross into Utah at midweek.
"If you don't graze it, you blaze it," said Nevada's Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber. "That is why we are riding. We hope to educate the people on the issue."
Gerber and the group specifically seek the ouster of the BLM's Battle Mountain District Manager Doug Furtado, who they say ordered an arbitrary closure of grazing on public lands, falsely using drought as an excuse in a decision that hurts ranching families and risks the range going up in flames.
"That grass down there was 18 inches to 2 feet tall. It was a wonderful grass year," said Gerber, who has a law practice. "But the federal government said it was drought and they have to do this."
The ranchers appealed the land closure through the appropriate legal channels to no avail, so Gerber said they are taking their message to the streets — literally.
"We are using every element of the First Amendment. We are talking to the press, we are assembling, we are praying and we are doing everything we can to change the situation in a peaceful, legal manner," Gerber said, adding the ride is not a "Bundy-esque" act of defiance.
"There is absolutely no civil disobedience here in any way. The BLM manager is unelected and unaccountable, and everyone wants him removed, but they can't do it. He is sitting in a position of total control and it is tyranny. That is why our message is 'regulation without representation is tyranny.'"
The ride, done in 5-mile relays with a goal of a 10 mph clip, will deliver a mail pouch containing petitions, letters and other documents that demonstrate the Western states' frustration with federal land management policies on grazing, wild horses, endangered species, forest management and more.
"We think we have a good cause, which is why this is gaining so much interest," Gerber said. "It started with one BLM manager, but the issue is much bigger. This is just a symptom of it."
Tooele County Commission Chairman J. Bruce Clegg and his family will met Gerber and his group at the Nevada/Utah border Wednesday.
"That will probably be the fastest part of our ride when we cross the Salt Flats," Gerber said. "We are going to be coming at a high gallop."
The Gerber group from Nevada and Clegg's Utah party are the core riders making the trek all the way to Washington. Other supporters join in along the way.
"We're basically tired of the heavy-handedness of the federal government," Clegg said. "We have our wild horse issues, our sage grouse issues and our grazing issues, to start."
The Tooele County Commission just signed off on a petition that expresses its angst over the federal government and the sentiment that the majority of federally owned lands in Utah would be better off under state control.
"That is the best solution to all of us — let us control our own problems," said Clegg, a fourth-generation rancher whose family first moved Tooele County dirt back in 1849.
"All of the rural commissioners in the state are pretty much united on this and feel this is a serious situation, he said. "That is what we are doing, carrying our concerns to Washington."
After an overnight rest at Lake Point, the group will head out long before daylight Thursday morning and begin their stretch through Salt Lake City east toward Wyoming. That evening, for those not involved in the ride but who support the message, a rally is being held at 7 p.m. at the Utah State Fairpark, with a show offered by cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell.
In Salt Lake City, Clegg said he will met by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, the Utah lawmaker who has galvanized the political movement to gain control of certain federal lands in the West.
Ivory authored HB148, the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which passed the Utah Legislature in 2012 and was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert. Since then, seven other Western states have put forward similar proposals or are in some stage of developing their own. The law demands the federal government cede title to certain lands within Utah's borders that supporters say were promised to the state when it became part of the union.
Ivory, who is organizing a meeting later in October for Western states involved in the movement, said he is not surprised to see frustration so deep it is sparking a cross-country horseback ride.
"The people who are on the ground, their way of life is being decimated," he said. "If we do not get some more local control, I am afraid we lose our lives and livelihoods in the West."
A copy of HB148 will be added to the pouch in Salt Lake City, as well as petitions from other rural Utah counties.
"We suspect by the time we get to Washington, we will have a dozen or more petitions. Even the counties in Kansas are getting on board without having the federal land ownership problems because they are dealing with the lesser prairie chicken," Gerber said.
"There will be more petitions that develop. They and others are using this as an opportunity to express their frustrations over the federal government where they see overreach."