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Dave Fisher gazed out from the passenger seat of the sheriffs Jeep and seemed to be struggling a little more than usual at holding down the sort of temper that erupts in slow waves from a large, quiet man not used to starting trouble.
I guess I could just go up and tell them its private land and they need to get off, he said, more like thinking aloud than actually proposing such a threat.
You could, Dave, Sheriffs Sergeant Errol Bechtel reassured him. Wed be with you.
But Fisher said no more. Up ahead, the old van was pulled headlong into a flat spot off the rocky road, its sliding panel door open to the noontime heat. There was no one visibly inside it or nearby on the barren slopes dotted with short stands of Mojave yucca and scattered with sharp ankle-busting igneous debris strewn about by some previous eruption.
It wasnt until the obvious law enforcement vehicle was near enough to be making loud crumbling noises off the road that a young man finally swung into view, feet first from the shade of the van, and sat with his knees to his chin in the panel doorway. He was dressed in shorts with no shirt, and his healthy pride of wavy golden brown hair and beard gave him away in about an auction second as just about what Dave Fisher expected.
Still, the tall rancher said nothing of what he was thinking as he strode on up the last bit of distance to where the young man stared back at him, a cloud of uncertain defiance already showing on his face. Do you know youre on private property? Fisher asked at last in a not altogether unfriendly way. No I dont, said the young man, shifting his glare between Fisher and Sergeant Bechtel. But is that why the sheriffs keep stopping us twice a day?
From that point, it could have gotten to be a much warmer afternoon. ...And I dont appreciate your invading my privacy, either, the young man added to the shutter-clicking Range photographer. As it turned out, though, young Dan Kent wasnt a half-bad guy to talk to. They hadnt stopped him or others along the road in the past couple of days, but deputies had checked their vehicles before, and this time, maybe the presence of a young lady who stayed well back in the shadows of the van added a little to Kents irritation at the interruption.
It was private land they were onDave Fishers deeded land that is spotted over more than 5,000 acres of Ord Mountain near Barstow, Calif., where Kent, a Utah resident, and about two dozen other trained and certified young people like him, have come for the summer to count tortoises.
Their contract with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, underwritten with contributions from the Department of Defense, calls for an expenditure of $400,000 to total up a fairly accurate estimate of how many of the hard-shelled critters there are creeping among the volcanic debris, sagebrush, and rattlesnakes of Ord Mountain.
If its what Fisher, and the High Desert Cattlemens Association, and the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Office, and most local governments for hundreds of miles around think it is, then the turtle counters Fisher fumes over have themselves in the middle of a mess that wont so easily be solved by helping Dan Kent and his funded friends find the dim lines on a map between public and private land.
Fisher wouldnt recognize himself as a sort of high-pocketed, modest Stetson, Gene Autry type hero, but for at least the last 10 years, this fifth generation rancher with a voice about as hard as the rocks he was raised on, has
been the singular champion on behalf of cattle growers all over the high desert who find their livelihood imperiled by yet another environmentalist surrogatethe desert tortoise.
There was probably an incident one day somewhere in the Mojave Desert during the last 150 years when a big bovine of some type accidentally put its clumsy hoof on the back of a tortoise and squashed it. Must have happened, like all things do. No shell-scattered body was ever found to prove it, however, and, actually, the flat smears you can still occasionally see along U.S. 395 attest to the much more likely, and still common, catastrophe encountered by the long-lived reptile. Cows, to those who dont know, arent capable of grubbing down to the base of plants, and because they eat the higher foliage, may actually improve growth for whats at the bottom, where the tortoise eats. And as for leftovers, it seems an open question over whether the tortoise is choosy about where it obtains its carbohydrates. It is a fundamentally stupid issue. Cows dont threaten tortoises.
If they did, for example, it might have been much less likely 25 or 30 years ago, when the price of gasoline was cheap enough to be competitive, that a few service stations in the hot flat stretches offered a free tortoise with every fill-up. It happened, and how many of the critters got tossed in the back of somebodys suburban station wagon for a ride into extinction is anybodys guess.
The desert tortoise is, even today, not endangered. It has just been made to seem that way by the pressure of environmentalist organizations led by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and opportunistic politicians who have added it to the threatened list of American species. Nobody really knows if even that much is true, which is one of the reasons federal authorities say they are willing to spend nearly half a million dollars in an attempt to count the slow moving creatures one-by-one on Dave Fishers Shield F ranch.
Ord Mountain is not the motherlode of desert tortoises, and counting them there wont make scientific
history. But Fisher made trouble right from the start in 1990 when the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity as well as the Audubon Society and others interested in cattle free rangeland first began waving around the tortoise as their own version of the spotted owl.
With generations of his own experience behind him, and aided by the knowledge shared by others who had lived and died in the Ord Valley without sometimes as much as a road to get the body out before spring, Fisher tried to point out to federal Bureau of Land Management authorities that any potential argument between ranchers and turtles made no sense.
For his trouble, Fisher got recognized last year, in the dying days of the Babbitt empire, as the grazing permittee and landholder most likely to be a problem to the maybe doomed tortoise. Based on an out-of-court settlement with the environmentalists, the BLM, in effect, directed Fisher to cease full grazing on 154,000 acres of his generations- old permit, and to expect trouble on even his own 5,000 acres of deeded land. They knew such an order, even if it was temporary, could drive him out of business, and even said so in their findings.
Incredibly, the BLM concluded in its written report that the regions economy would be benefited by the nonprofit financial sponsors of the turtle savers. ...the cost savings realized by temporarily not investing money in a livestock operation would allow groups to divert funds into land acquisition, management, administrative functions and other endeavors.
Fisher is, for all youll ever see of him, a calm, quiet man. But theres something in the way he asks his own questions that suggests more. He talks to himself, works the problem out loud; he settles for stewing patience. But one of these days...
His friendsthe longtime friends of his family over generations in the San Bernardino Valleyknew that about Dave. If in the BLM decision directing protection of the tortoise Dave Fisher and the Shield F were to be the fall guy, it certainly wouldnt happen without resistance.
Thus in short order after Fisher was directed to remove cattle from his allotments, did the county sheriff sever formal enforcement agreements with the BLM and let it be known whose side deputies would take in any dispute. This action...may result in physical resistance by cattlemen attempting to preserve their stock, wrote San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod in a letter to the BLM. I do not wish to be associated with any [BLM] personnel who may be precipitating possible violent range disputes through their official action.
So, similarly, did County Supervisor Bill Postmus fire off a letter warning of actionable harm to the countys economy if the BLM tried to put ranchers out of business. And so up the line through 28 members of the state legislature and at least one member of Congress objecting to BLMs arbitrary action did the letters fly.
But that didnt stop the Center for Biological Diversity and their love of the little tortoise from threatening more lawsuits to force BLM action. By the beginning of this year, they quietly staged the training ground sessions in Las Vegas that brought such people as Dan Kent and his friends from Utah to learn about counting tortoises in a moving two mile grid over public land on Ord Mountain. And though it costs money just to send young folks like them out to tramp around the rattlesnakes, that suddenly came available from the U.S. Department of Defense, which, oddly enough, borders Fishers allotments and properties on two sides. The Armys Fort Irwin and the Marines 29 Palms desert airbase are both reportedly eager to expand their own operations without any tortoise trouble.
So far, other than that, nothing has happened. The BLM knows Fisher is not about to remove his cattle, and they know not to expect anything like help from the local sheriff if they try it themselves.
Oh, youre Fisher! Dan Kent said in obvious recognition that day on the mountain.
Fisher, as noted, is the kind of slow-to-rile guy who also finds it hard to just let something go. You can just about watch it physically happening as he struggles with himself between patience and a roar you sense is down there wanting to come out. Finally, that afternoon after explaining in several ways to Kent and others from his turtle counting expedition what is private and public property, Fisher climbed back into the friendly sheriffs Jeep.
Maybe, he said, talking to himself again. I should have just told them to get off.
Update: In June, Interior Secretary Gale Norton declared a state of emergency involving the BLM demands on Fisher and six other ranchers in the Mojave. She ordered a hearing before an administrative law judge in late July to review BLM actions halting grazing on behalf of the tortoises.
The turtle counters on Fishers land, meanwhile, have gone somewhere else, but not before sending a letter to BLM authorities in Barstow which sources said complained of Fisher and a group of armed men in dusters harassing one of their volunteers. According to sources, the letter claimed Fisher had brown drool at the corner of his mouth, and the volunteer was particularly upset by a photographer who violated his privacy by taking his picture without his permission.
Tim Findleythe photographer complained about by the turtle counterwitnessed neither dusters nor drool.
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