By TERI FIGUEROA
BARSTOW — Desert ranchers struggling to keep their rights to graze cattle on federal lands will get their day in court July 24.
It’s not a typical court, however. It’s a U.S. Department of Interior administrative court, to be convened in the Barstow City Council chambers.
Officials expect the hearing to run two weeks, and everyone expects a full house.
“I’ve been wanting this evidentiary hearing out of the Department of Interior for a year,” Dave Fisher, president of the High Desert Cattlemen’s Association, said. “This is not a show. This is a fight for my livelihood.”
The seven affected cattle ranchers are appealing a Bureau of Land Management decision to kick their cattle off public desert lands — lands home to the threatened desert tortoise.
Interior officials have until Aug. 24 to decide. If the cowboys lose their appeal, the livestock must be gone from 285,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert by Sept. 7.
“It’s the defense of liberties, the defense of rights and of due process,” said local Assemblyman Phil Wyman, R-Tehachapi.
“It’s the line in the sand. Dave Fisher has become the poster child for the defense of private property ... There but by the grace of God go any citizens.”
Many local officials are paying more than lip service to their support of the ranchers — and their protest of the BLM decision.
In May, San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Bill Postmus stripped the local BLM of free access to the county dumps — a move BLM officials said keeps them from cleaning up the tons of garbage illegally ditched in the desert. Postmus says the BLM shouldn’t rely on the county to pick up the tab and should pay dump fees itself.
In April, San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod — calling the BLM's actions in the cattle clash "arbitrary and unreasonable" — canceled a deal allowing BLM officials to enforce state and county laws on local federal lands.
At about the same time, 28 members of the state Legislature — led by Wyman — fired off a letter to Mike Pool, director of BLM California operations.
The battle over cattle began some 16 months ago when an environmental coalition called BLM on the carpet for not protecting threatened desert species, including the beleaguered desert tortoise. They sued in federal court.
In an out-of-court settlement in January, the BLM agreed to — among other concessions — stop cattle grazing on federally owned desert lands.