June 28, 2014

The race to stop Las Vegas from running dry

Amid a brutal drought the reservoir that supplies 90 per cent of Las Vegas’s water is fast disappearing and desperate attempts to save Sin City are under way

Lake Mead: boaters seen in front of a white "bathtub ring" on the rocks on the upstream side of the Hoover Dam. (Photo: Getty)

By Nick Allen
The Telegraph

Las Vegas -- Outside Las Vegas’s Bellagio hotel tourists gasp in amazement as fountains shoot 500ft into the air, performing a spectacular dance in time to the music of Frank Sinatra.

Gondolas ferry honeymooners around canals modelled on those of Venice, Roman-themed swimming pools stretch for acres, and thousands of sprinklers keep golf courses lush in the middle of the desert.

But, as with many things in Sin City, the apparently endless supply of water is an illusion. America’s most decadent destination has been engaged in a potentially catastrophic gamble with nature and now, 14 years into a devastating drought, it is on the verge of losing it all.

“The situation is as bad as you can imagine,” said Tim Barnett, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It’s just going to be screwed. And relatively quickly. Unless it can find a way to get more water from somewhere Las Vegas is out of business. Yet they’re still building, which is stupid.”

The crisis stems from the Las Vegas’s complete reliance on Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir, which was created by the Hoover Dam in 1936 - after which it took six years to fill completely.

It is located 25 miles outside the city and supplies 90 per cent of its water. But over the last decade, as Las Vegas’s population has grown by 400,000 to two million, Lake Mead has slowly been drained of four trillion gallons of water and is now well under half full. Mr Barnett predicts it may be a “dead pool” that provides no water by about 2036.

The lake currently looks as if someone has removed a giant plug from it.

Around its edges a strip of bleached rock known locally as the “bath tub ring” towers like the White Cliffs of Dover, showing where the water level used to be. Pyramid-shaped mountains rise from the shallow waters.

Tying up his 15ft boat at the water’s edge Tom Merrit, 51, who has fished on the lake for years, pointed to the top of a faraway hill and said: “My boat used to be right up there. We’ve had to keep moving down and down as the water recedes.”

“That rock never used to be there,” he added, gesturing to a newly-emerging island several hundred feet long. “It’s really sad because this used to be a great lake. But if they don’t do something soon it’ll be gone.”

Lake Mead’s water level is currently at 1,087ft above sea level. There are two pipes, known as “straws”, that take water from it to Las Vegas.

The first extracts water at an elevation of 1,050ft and is likely to be sucking at air, rather than water, soon. The second straw is at 1,000ft.

Lake Mead is expected to fall another 20ft towards that critical point by the end of this year.

Beneath the ground a mammoth effort is already under way to complete a new, lower straw which will be able to draw the last of the water from the lake.

But it is a painfully slow process as a giant drill the size of two football pitches advances at a rate of one inch per day.

That rescue project is costing $817 million and is currently expected to be complete by late 2015, but it is not viewed as a long-term solution.

Las Vegas also wants to build a separate $15.5 billion pipeline that would pump 27 billion gallons of groundwater a year from an aquifer 260 miles away in rural Nevada.

But a judge has refused permission after environmentalists sued on the basis that it would adversely affect 5,500 acres of meadows, 33 miles of trout streams, and 130,000 acres of habitat used by sage grouse, mule deer, elk and pronghorn, an antelope-like creature that is endangered in the region. The court heard that 25 species of Great Basin springsnails would be pushed toward extinction.

Rob Mrowka, a Las Vegas-based scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, which brought the legal case against the pipeline, said: “It’s a really dumb-headed proposition. It would provide a false sense of security that there’s plenty of water and it would delay the inevitable decisions that have to be taken about water conservation and restricting growth.

“The drought is like a slow spreading cancer across the desert. It’s not like a tornado or a tsunami, bang. The effects are playing out over decades. And as the water situation becomes more dire we are going to start having to talk about the removal of people (from Las Vegas).”

Mr Mrowka cited Lake Las Vegas, a mega-resort where stars including Celine Dion live, as one of the “most egregious examples” of wasting water.

He said: “It’s a community for the rich and famous and it has a 320-acre lake filled with three billion gallons of water from Lake Mead. That’s three billion gallons of drinking water, and each year they take millions more to keep it from stagnating and smelling.”

Las Vegas gets just four inches of rain in a good year, and in the first four months of 2014 there was just 0.31 of an inch.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which has the task of keeping the city from running dry, has described the effects of the drought as “every bit as serious as a Hurricane Katrina or a Superstorm Sandy”.

But spokesman JC Davis said water-hogging developments like Lake Las Vegas were “artifacts from an earlier time that wouldn’t be allowed today.”

He said: “The days of having things like a shopping center lined with grass are over.”

Even environmentalists acknowledge that the glitzy hotels on the Las Vegas Strip have made big strides toward using water wisely.

The Strip now uses only seven per cent of the city’s water while accounting for 70 per cent of its economy.

All the water from sinks and showers in hotel rooms is recycled, and even water from some lavatories ends up treated and back in Lake Mead.

Some hotels automatically only wash bedroom linen once every two days, and restaurants have stopped serving glasses of water unless requested to do so.

While it may look extravagant the Bellagio fountain does not in fact use water from Lake Mead, instead being filled from an underground lake on the hotel’s land which is undrinkable anyway.

However, Las Vegas still uses 219 gallons of water per person per day, one of the highest figures in the US. In San Francisco the figure is just 49 gallons.

Most of that water is used to sprinkle golf courses, parks and lawns so the water authority has declared war on grass, paying homeowners to remove it from their gardens at the rate of $1.50 per square foot.

So far 165 million square feet of turf has been destroyed. Laid end to end in an 18-inch strip it would stretch 90 per cent of the way around the Earth.

“I’ve lost count of how much grass I’ve ripped up,” said Matt Baroudi, 53, an award-winning British landscape designer who moved to Las Vegas 15 years ago and installs eco-friendly gardens and back yards.

“Today I’ve just taken out a lawn that will save 20,000 gallons of water a year. People are changing but I think ultimately they will have to made it illegal to sell grass seeds.

“I go boating on Lake Mead and I’ve watched it dry up. It’s just astonishing. You see a rock poking out and then three weeks later it’s 15ft high. I don’t know what they are going to do.”

There is pressure on the neighbouring state of California to take pity on Las Vegas and give it water. But California is dealing with its own three-year drought, possibly its worst in half a millennium, which Governor Jerry Brown has described as “epochal”.

100 per cent of California is now classified as in “severe drought” and rivers are so low 27 million young migrating salmon are having to be taken to the ocean in trucks.

Nevada and California are just two of seven states that rely for water on the 1,450-mile Colorado River, which rises in the Rocky Mountains and used to empty into the Gulf of California in Mexico - but which now rarely reaches the sea, running dry before that.

In 1922 seven US states - California, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico - first divided up how much river water each could use, and the amounts have been bitterly contested ever since, including by Mexico, which also takes water from it.

One proposal is for landlocked Nevada to pay billions of dollars to build solar-powered desalination plants in the Pacific off Mexico, taking Mexico’s share of Colorado River water in exchange.

But Mr Mrowka said: “The Colorado is essentially a dying river. Ultimately, Las Vegas and our civilisation in the American South West is going to disappear, like the Indians did before us.”

June 27, 2014

Group Will Sue to Block 'Evisceration' of Endangered Species Act

A new policy would make it nearly impossible to add new species to the Endangered list until it might be too late for them. (Photo: Jane Waterbury/Flickr/Creative Commons License)

by Chris Clarke
KCET Rewild Commentary

A seemingly arcane shift in policy on the part of two federal agencies about enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has wildlife advocates ready to head to court, saying that the Obama administration is "eviscerating" protection for endangered and threatened species by making the change.

The shift in policy, to be formally announced July 1 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries office (NOAA Fisheries), centers on the degree to which a potentially protected species is declining in different parts of its range. Under current ESA policy, based on the language in the law itself, a species qualifies for protection as endangered or Threatened when it is "in danger of extinction in all or a significant portion of its range."

That "significant portion" language has historically allowed the agencies to protect species that are in peril in some of their range, but less threatened elsewhere. Under the new policy, the population in that "significant portion" of the range would have to be absolutely crucial to the survival of the species. That interpretation would mean neither USFWS nor NOAA Fisheries would protect species under ESA until they're in serious trouble wherever they exist. That would be a blow to wildlife protection efforts, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which announced today it will be filing suit to block the new policy.

"The policy finalized today eviscerates the key requirement that species need not be at risk of extinction everywhere before they can be protected," said Brett Hartl, CBD's endangered species policy director. "The policy absolutely undermines the spirit of the Endangered Species Act and will allow massive decline of our native wildlife along with the destruction of wildlife habitat."

Under the new policy, the agencies would also disregard the historic range of a species in determining whether that species deserves protection under ESA. The justification USFWS and NOAA Fisheries offer for this change is a marvel of sophistry:

As defined in the Act, a species is endangered only if it "is in danger of extinction" throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The phrase "is in danger" denotes a present-tense condition of being at risk of a current or future undesired event. Hence, to say a species "is in danger" in an area where it no longer exists -- i.e., in its historical range where it has been extirpated -- is inconsistent with common usage. Thus, "range" must mean "current range," not "historical range."

What's this mean? Imagine if the American bison had been completely wiped out in the wild, instead of just almost completely wiped out, and that the only remaining members of the species left were the ones taking it easy on Catalina Island. Under this new policy, if the bison were at no risk of extinction on Catalina, USFWS wouldn't protect them under ESA despite the loss of more than 99 percent of the species' range and population.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has long been criticized for only protecting species on the very brink of extinction, which makes recovery a difficult uphill slog," said the CBD. "This policy would actually codify that approach, essentially saying: Let's only protect these creatures when they're in as desperate a state as possible."

CBD contends that a number of courts, including the 9th Circuit, have already ruled the new policy illegal.

Imperial Irrigation District pitches Salton Sea plan

A plan to increase renewable energy production in and around the Salton Sea — and have utilities help finance the ailing lake’s ultimate restoration — was touted on Capitol Hill this week. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)

Raju Chebium
The Desert Sun

WASHINGTON – A plan to increase renewable energy production in and around the Salton Sea — and have utilities help finance the ailing lake's ultimate restoration — was touted on Capitol Hill this week.

Bruce Wilcox, a Salton Sea expert at the Imperial Irrigation District, said the agency's plan would generate about $3 billion over 30 years.

It won't be enough on its own to restore the 376-square-mile lake. But the plan, building momentum since last fall, represents a workable funding solution that has long eluded state and local officials.

Wilcox said it also gives Southern California's congressional delegation and local officials involved in the restoration more ammunition when they ask for the Obama administration's endorsement.

Since 1985, the federal government has contributed about $52 million to Salton Sea restoration, mostly for experimental projects, water-quality and salinity studies and ecosystem monitoring that experts say has helped them understand the science behind the lake's problems.

"What I think (federal officials) should be providing now is money to build things there," Wilcox said after speaking at an event organized by The Wilderness Society to highlight the need for more renewable energy projects on public lands nationwide.

"We're at a point now where we need to start a field laboratory approach – build a 1,000 acres, see how it works and adjust it accordingly," he added. "This is an attempt to get us started in small increments moving toward that bigger restoration."

U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz said he is pushing the Obama administration to create a renewable-energy zone in the Salton Sea. That would be a preliminary step in making the IID project a reality.

In a brief interview after The Wilderness Society's event, where Ruiz was honored for his efforts to promote renewable energy projects on federal land, Ruiz said saving the Salton Sea requires widespread support.

"This is an all-hands-on-deck project," said the Palm Desert Democrat, who is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

"We need the federal government, state government, local government; we need private business. We need the tribes and we need the philanthropists."

State, local and federal leaders for years have debated how to save the dying Salton Sea, only to shelve the plans because of the huge costs associated with the project.

A $9 billion restoration plan unveiled by state leaders in 2007 never got an the California Legislature's endorsement or financing.

The sea's future has become a more pressing issue as time passes. A massive agriculture-to-urban water transfer scheduled for 2017 will further shrink the sea, expose potentially hazardous lake bed and cause widespread air quality and environmental woes.

The IID plan has yet to win state or federal blessings.

In an interview from California, IID General Manager Kevin Kelley said the plan does have the backing of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.

The IID still awaits a response to a request to the Interior Department, made in February, to commit to allowing renewable energy projects on 80,000 acres it owns in the Salton Sea, he said.

The IID has already pledged to expand clean energy production on 120,000 acres it owns.

Much of that land is now under water, but is expected to become dry after 2017 as the Salton Sea recedes.

"I'd like to have a meaningful expression of support. I'd like a partner," Kelley said. "Getting the land commitment is a start. I'd like to add the 80,000 acres to the available inventory."

The Wilderness Society, or TWS, is backing House and Senate bills filed last year that would expand renewable energy on federal lands and use some of the money to shore up conservation efforts like in the Salton Sea.

But those measures haven't advanced and are unlikely to gain traction before the November elections.

Joshua Mantell, a government relations official at TWS, said he's optimistic Congress will pass the proposal after the election but before the end of this year.

June 25, 2014

Baker's thermometer to reopen July 10

World's Largest Thermometer

The world's tallest thermometer in Baker. The thermometer will be rededicated on July 10, after several repairs and improvements. (LARAE HARGUESS)

Victorville Daily Press

BAKER — When it comes to temperatures, July 10 is a historical date.

In 1913, the hottest official temperature on Earth was recorded in Death Valley at 134 degrees on that date.

At 3 p.m. this July 10, the lights on the 134-foot world’s tallest thermometer in Baker will be turned on once again, according to LaRae Harguess. The event will be held in dedication to Willis Herron, who intentionally built the thermometer 134 feet to match the record hottest temperature.

Harguess, who is one of Herron’s daughters, says the family is holding a soft opening for its gift shop on that day as well. The official grand opening of both the thermometer and the gift shop will be held Oct. 11.

Harguess said her mother, Barbara Herron, was heartbroken over the disrepair of what was known for years as the Bun Boy thermometer and decided to use her own money to repair it. Harguess said her mother has spent $150,000 so far.

“All of the lighting, computer work, electrical had to be reconstructed,” Harguess said. The family was hoping to turn the thermometer back on by Memorial Day weekend.

“We ran into issues with Edison and light bulbs,” Harguess said. “We had a problem getting light bulbs. We needed a whole new computer system and testing. ... Everything happens for a reason.”

The official gift shop opening is waiting on more merchandise, according to Harguess. She said the family hopes to make enough money from sales in the gift shop to cover the costs to keep the thermometer on.

The July 10 event is open to the public.

June 22, 2014

The grand compromise: The search for a public lands resolution

A possible solution to the bickering over land use in a big chunk of Utah is being negotiated with all varieties of groups at the table under an effort shepherded by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. Despite the challenges, he and others remain optimistic.

The moon sets in Desolation Canyon Thursday, July 1, 2010, on the Green River. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine Rob Bishop with his head under the hood of a car and a line of people behind him telling him the best way to fix it.

That's the scenario for the Utah congressman, the "car" in this case the delicate issue of federal lands oversight in Utah, and few would dispute the current system is a junker, rife with lawsuits, stalemates and uncertainty.

Bishop, a Republican, has spent the past 20 months as the fixer mechanic, brokering a public lands initiative process that attempts to meld a legislative solution to land use issues in seven Utah counties.

"Everybody is going to get something, but not everything they demand," he said. "That is the beauty of doing it big."

Bishop's bill will propose solutions for some 18 million acres in the extreme eastern part of Utah, with possible wilderness designations that number in the millions of acres. At the same time, it would carve out certainty for recreationers, the oil and gas industry, coal mining interests, potash extraction and more.

This is no minor tune-up.

Wednesday Bishop met with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at her request. He said she wanted to know how his "grand bargain" legislative effort was coming along.

"It was positive," he said. "She wanted a quick update of where we were in the process...We did go through in detail over the kind of things we would be putting on the table. She actually seemed very positive about it going forward."

Positive and optimistic

"Positive" is the key word that swirls around any discussions on Bishop's public lands initiative. It is the oil that keeps this engine running, even in the face of such disparate interests.

"It's quite encouraging to see the stakeholders still hitched," said Kim Christy, deputy director of Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), which manages lands conveyed at statehood and held in trust for financial benefit of school children.

"I am the first to admit it is a long shot." But it is a shot.

The stakes are high for Utah.

Bishop's bill, which he hopes to ready to be introduced in January, involves land swaps — it could be SITLA's largest in its history — and would mean it could trade out high-value cultural or wilderness quality lands in exchange for acreage with potential for development.

It leaves the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument off the table and it attempts to solve disputes in this swath of Utah that arise over oil and gas development, endangered species, off-roading, grazing and more.

Bishop believes faith in the continuing negotiations is helping to keep a possible monument designation in Utah by President Obama at bay, although no outright promises have been made.

"What they have said is they are positive about the process and as long as we seem to be making progress toward the solution that this would be the preferable solution where everyone is involved, as opposed to the president making a political statement," he said.

Bishop said each side can gain something and the threat of losing everything keeps everyone involved in the process.

"What we are seeing is everyone sees a potential win out of this process and that encourages them to continue on," he said. "It is important to say that unlike maybe a few years ago, when other people were less successful in trying this same kind of stuff, that everyone also views the potential of defeat."

Strange bedfellows

He said, "There have been times...that there was one side or the other who thought they had the guaranteed, safe upper hand as it was and if they stood pat, and stuck with the status quo, they would come out OK." He said now the threat of losing something provides a healthy détente.

This lands process, as a concept, has forged like positions for two unlikely bedfellows — Emery County and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).

Representatives of both say they prefer a wilderness bill to a monument designation.

"The impetus for us doing this is to have some local control for what gets designated as wilderness," said Ray Petersen, Emery County's public lands coordinator. "SUWA's Red Rock Wilderness deal or a monument designation is totally out of control, so if we can maintain some input, and some control in this process, why would we not want to do that?"

And from Scott Groene, SUWA's executive director: "I would rather we reach agreement on wilderness legislation. It would affect a much larger amount of wilderness and there could be greater certainty with legislation. We could resolve more issues."

Working the deal

Bishop is working with each of the seven counties to come up with individual public lands management proposals that contemplate wilderness designations and zones where oil and gas development, mining and recreation occur. It could be that all seven counties are part of the final package. It could be that all are not.

"All of them are just looking for certainty," Bishop said, who is still months out from having maps that detail what that proposal ultimately will look like.

Emery County is farther along in the process than the others, having submitted its plan to Bishop two years ago.

"We have negotiated a compromise over time, since this latest effort, going back a couple of decades," Petersen said.

When the Bureau of Land Management abolished cross-country motorized travel and instead designated only specific routes where it was allowed, Petersen said it was a rancorous and dramatic change for residents.

"It was the most painful process, a big change. For some of the users, it was nearly the end of the world to have to be confined to ride on trails."

The decision closed hundreds of miles of trails and was not well received, Petersen said. But within a couple of years the locals decided they could live with it.

"It took a lot of time to go through that. The end result is that we have better management of the resources."

Park expansion?

He said that same idea is at play with the idea of expanding Goblin Valley State Park by 136,000 acres. Such a move involves a transfer of BLM-managed lands and could be accomplished through Bishop's bill.

"The east side of those canyons, day in and day out, are the busiest slots on the swell. It is the farthest away from the BLM's Price field office and it really needs management now; the BLM acknowledges that."

So how is it accomplished?

"My advice is to start 15 years ago," Petersen said. "It takes time. You have to be committed to it. You cannot do it quickly and it is not going to be easy. You have to commit to collaborate, understanding that you are not going to get everything you want."

Groene said his group is waiting to see what the individual county plans look like and what ultimately is laid out on the bargaining table.

"We have said all along the only way we will reach agreement is everyone will have to make concessions, including ourselves."

Reaching agreement on a sensitive environmental issue in which industry and advocates have to compromise is not without precedent in Utah.

SUWA, the state of Utah, Bill Barrett Corp., and a host of others forged concessions in a programmatic agreement in 2010 hailed by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as historic for what it gave up, and for what it allowed in the Nine Mile Canyon area.

Then, as in the process unfolding now, no one got what they wanted, but they got enough.

Petersen said ideally, public lands planning involves looking beyond one's own hood ornament as you're traveling toward your destination.

"There is plenty of resource, but every resource will not be used for every reason," Petersen said. "The big picture is we have to make land use decisions about what is best for the land, and sometimes that is not what is best for me, and I am not always going to get what I want."

June 20, 2014

Water war bubbling up between California and Arizona

Low water levels are plainly visible on Lake Mead, which is fed by the Colorado River. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Michael Hiltzik

Once upon a time, California and Arizona went to war over water.

The year was 1934, and Arizona was convinced that the construction of Parker Dam on the lower Colorado River was merely a plot to enable California to steal its water rights. Its governor, Benjamin Moeur, dispatched a squad of National Guardsmen up the river to secure the eastern bank from the decks of the ferryboat Julia B. — derisively dubbed "Arizona's navy" by a Times war correspondent assigned to cover the skirmish. After the federal government imposed a truce, the guardsmen returned home as "conquering heroes."

The next water war between California and Arizona won't be such an amusing little affair. And it's coming soon.

The issue still is the Colorado River. Over-consumption and climate change have placed the river in long-term decline. It's never provided the bounty that was expected in 1922, when the initial allocations among the seven states of the Colorado River basin were penciled out as part of the landmark Colorado River Compact, which enabled Hoover Dam to be built, and the shortfall is growing.

The signs of decline are impossible to miss. One is the wide white bathtub ring around Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, showing the difference between its maximum level and today's. Lake Mead is currently at 40% of capacity, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam. At 1084.63 feet on Wednesday, it's a couple of feet above its lowest water level since it began filling in 1935.

But the rules governing appropriations from the river are unforgiving and don't provide for much shared sacrifice among the states, or among farmers and city dwellers.

The developing crisis can't be caricatured as farmers versus fish, as it is by Central Valley growers irked at environmental diversions of water into the region's streams. It can't be addressed by building more dams, because reservoirs can't be filled with water that doesn't come. And it can't be addressed by technological solutions such as desalination, which can provide only marginal supplies of fresh water, and then only at enormous expense.

Nor can a few wet years alleviate the need for long-term solutions. "We had a solid year this year, which takes a bit of the panic out," says Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million residents and gets about half of its water supply from the Colorado. But because "demand outstrips supply, we expect a long-term decline. And possibly because the crisis has been developing slowly, we're nowhere near a solution."

What will be necessary is a fundamental reconsideration of 100 years of water-appropriation practices and patterns. Farmers, whose claims on Colorado river water are senior to all others, may have to give up, or sell off, some of their rights. Strict legal provisions that would turn whole swaths of the inhabited Southwest back into desert to slake the thirst of California cities will have to be reconsidered.

"Nineteenth century water law is meeting 20th century infrastructure and 21st century climate change," says Bradley Udall, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School, "and it leads to a nonsensical outcome."

If the Western drought continues, Arizona would have to bear almost the entire brunt of water shortages before California gives up a drop of its appropriation from the river. Few observers of Western water affairs believe that's politically practical, but few have offered practical alternatives.

A quick history lesson: The Colorado Compact, reached by six of the seven basin states in 1922 under then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, aimed to replace the tangle of state water allocation laws with a single legal regime in order to get the dam built. (Arizona finally signed the deal in 1944.) But the compact was based on a fraud — an estimate of river flows that Hoover and the states' negotiators almost certainly knew was wildly optimistic.

Many times, the compact has been revised and supplemented to meet changing conditions. In 1968, Congress authorized construction of the Central Arizona Project, a massive aqueduct serving Phoenix and Tucson, by passing the Colorado River Basin Project Act. Arizona agreed to be last in line for water from the Colorado if a serious drought struck.

The bill's drafters probably never thought supplies would become so tight. But the bill from nearly a century of overuse is on the verge of coming due. During the last 50 years, according to figures from the Reclamation Bureau, the population served by the river has grown from 12 million to 30 million. Over that period, the average flow on the river has fallen from 15.5 million acre-feet to as low as 12 million. (An acre-foot serves two households a year.)

The river's apparent abundance has encouraged exceptionally wasteful usage. For example, thirsty forage crops such as alfalfa and pasture land account for as much as half the irrigated acreage in California, according to a report last year by the Pacific Institute. And as my colleague David Pierson reported recently, much of the harvest is shipped to China.

The Pacific Institute finds that stingier but still effective irrigation practices could save nearly 1 million acre-feet a year throughout the Colorado basin, and replacing alfalfa with cotton and wheat would save 250,000 acre-feet. But plainly, a trade pattern that effectively exports the West's scarce water to China isn't sustainable.

Other old assumptions will also have be discarded. One crucial need is to keep Lake Mead's water level well above 1,000 feet, the point at which it is unable to deliver water to Las Vegas and its ability to generate hydroelectricity is compromised. That task would be considerably eased by draining Lake Powell, the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam, upstream of the Grand Canyon.

That proposal has been pushed by the Glen Canyon Institute, a Salt Lake City-based environmental group, but faces hurdles in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, where residents fear that draining Lake Powell will only allow California, Arizona and Nevada to deprive them of their legal right to the river's flow.

The political resistance to shutting down Lake Powell is intense, though in time it may be trumped by the sheer scale of the water crisis. "We've gone from seeming to be the lunatic fringe to being taken seriously," says M. Lea Rudee, a board member of the Glen Canyon Institute.

Another assumption being challenged is the primacy of agriculture's claim on water. The solution is to buy farmers out, trading cash for their water rights to keep supplies flowing to urban areas. The MWD is working to develop a plan to pay growers to fallow their land to raise the water level of Lake Mead. "But we really don't know what the response will be to a cash offer to take land out of production," Kightlinger says.

What is certain is that the solutions will be complicated and contentious. The last major effort to settle legal rights on the Colorado River involved a sheaf of interstate and interagency pacts known collectively as the Quantification Settlement Agreement. The QSA was reached in 2003 and then litigated for the next 11 years. Last month a federal appeals court upheld the QSA against an environmental challenge, but that may not be the last word — a petition for rehearing is in the works, and a challenge in California state court is still alive.

But they these efforts still don't provide a framework for the future. "The arrangements in place right now are politically untenable," Udall says. But what can be done when the solutions are, too?

June 12, 2014

Freedom Fighter

When rancher Cliven Bundy engaged in a standoff with the BLM, a Montana man initiated a call to action to militia across the country. He considers it just the first battle in a war to reclaim America.

Payne joined the U.S. Army at 17. He served in a long-range surveillance unit that moved far behind enemy lines during and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Though he considers himself a fervent patriot, he now sees the government he once served as a threat to the Constitution he pledged to defend. (PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS)

By Ted McDermott
Missoula Independent

On April 7, Ryan Payne, a 30-year-old Iraq War veteran, packed his '93 Jeep Cherokee with two sleeping bags, two cots, the rucksack he'd more or less lived out of during his five years in the military and a Rock River Arms Operator LAR-15. He was on his way to the southern Nevada desert to defend the oppressed from the tyrannical force of the federal government, and he knew he might have to fight.

Payne was leaving his family and his home south of Anaconda to support Cliven Bundy, an elderly Nevada rancher engaged in a tense conflict with the Bureau of Land Management, which was rounding up cattle Bundy had been illegally grazing on federal land for some 20 years. When the roundup started on April 5, Payne followed the action from afar. He saw images that seemed to show BLM snipers aiming guns at the Bundy family to prevent them from interfering in the impounding process. He read online that Bundy's son Davey was arrested on April 6 for "refusing to disperse" while protesting the agency's actions. He read that BLM agents had allegedly roughed up Davey Bundy while he was in their custody.

Ryan Payne watched what was happening, and he saw a striking example of what he observed more and more throughout the country: the U.S. government acting far outside its constitutional authority to control and confine the American people. As he watched, Payne felt not merely compelled but obliged to respond, to uphold the oath he'd taken at 17 when he joined the U.S. Army: "I, Ryan Payne, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic...." He'd fought foreign enemies before. Now, he believed, the enemy was domestic.

So on April 6, Payne called Cliven Bundy and offered his help.

"I told him what OMA was," Payne says, "and that, if he requested assistance, I would be calling in militia from all over the country and individuals to come, armed, to protect his family and his community from whoever it was that was trying to harm them."

OMA is Operation Mutual Aid, a loose coalition of militias and sympathetic individuals from across the United States. Payne started the organization in 2013 with Pennsylvania resident Jerry Bruckhart. They designed OMA as a mechanism for using the power of the nation's hundreds of disparate militias to defend all oppressed Americans. If anyone made a request for OMA's aid, the organization would alert its members, who would, if they desired, act together to defend that individual's rights. No such request had ever come, so OMA started to solicit them. Cliven Bundy was the first to accept OMA's offer of support.

When he did, Payne and Bruckhart spread the word online and over the phone. Jim Lardy, who lives in Philipsburg and belongs to the West Mountain Rangers, a local militia Payne founded in 2012, immediately said he wanted to go, too. Payne agreed to give Lardy a ride.

After he'd packed his Jeep, Payne said goodbye to his wife, their two young children and his grandparents, who live with them. Not wanting to leave his family without a means of defense, he left behind his FN FAL, an assault rifle used by so many NATO militaries during the Cold War that it got the nickname "the Right Arm of the Free World." Then Payne and Lardy drove to Nevada through the night.


"It started when ... I saw that movie Sniper," Payne says, "and I go, 'I want to be a sniper.'"

After finishing high school in Southern California, Payne went to a Military Entrance Processing Station in 2001 to act on that desire. He went to join the Marines first, but the Marines recruiter couldn't guarantee that he would end up becoming a sniper.

"So, I went over to talk to the Army people," Payne says, "and they said, 'Well, we can give you a Ranger contract and, most likely, if you go into that type of unit then you'll get to go to school and be a sniper.'"

He ended up becoming not quite a sniper and not quite a Ranger, though he has claimed in online forums and elsewhere that he was. In fact, he served in the 18th Airborne Corps' Long Range Surveillance Company. He learned sniper techniques such as stalking and concealment, and he foresaw a long career in military intelligence. "[A]t that point I devoted my life to the cause of liberty and freedom and the pursuit of it for the rest of my life," he says. His goal was to become an agent for the CIA or a non-official cover. "I believed that that would be the pinnacle of patriotism."

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Payne was part of the initial push as a member of a six-man team that moved far behind enemy lines and far from friendly support. They moved only at night, under the cover of darkness. It was dangerous and difficult work, but Payne excelled. He rose to the rank of sergeant and became an assistant team leader of his LRS unit. According to Ben Fisher, who served with Payne during two tours in Iraq, "Everyone that worked with his group and his team, they had good things to say about him."

Then, one night in 2005, Payne's military experience took a turn while his team was pursuing an unspecified intelligence target south of the Sinjar Mountains and west of the city of Tal Afar, in a flat landscape of unfamiliar wheat fields. They'd been informed ahead of time, Payne says, that the estimated strength of the enemy was 77. His six-man team would be outmatched, but that wasn't supposed to matter. Their mission was to avoid detection—and if they were identified and attacked, a plan was in place for AH-64 Apaches and other air support to come rapidly to the team's aid.

But things didn't go as planned. First, the target wasn't where they thought it would be. "So we kept moving closer and closer," Payne says. His team came to a Bedouin encampment and dogs there began to bark. "Eventually, the dogs compromised us and people came out of their tents and started shooting, and it went silly," he says.

Payne says his team suddenly faced 26 combatants. As the situation worsened, Payne's team tried to call in the air support that had been arranged—but it didn't come.

"For some reason, the rear, who was our ops center, was canceling all of our requests for gun runs," Payne says. "You know, we're staring at 26 guys in front of us that are shooting at us and stuff, and we're requesting strafing runs—denied, denied." The air support never came, and Payne says his team was in "a very bad spot for very many hours, fighting for our lives."

All six men survived, but Payne was furious. "I lost it, man," he says.

At a debriefing afterward, Payne went off on those who he felt had failed him.

"I'm cussing these guys out," he says. "They are officers—captains and things—and I am a sergeant. And, you know, 'Why did it go this way?' And, 'The reason it went this way is because you didn't your job. And people almost died because of it.'"

In the aftermath of the botched mission, Payne became convinced the lack of support wasn't a matter of negligence but of a deliberate decision. "We all came back," he says. "I don't think that was the plan."

Though he won't speculate about what his superiors' plan might have been, his experience that night catalyzed a change in Payne. He became suspicious of the military and came to question its intentions.

"I discovered that I was working for the wrong team if I were in the pursuit of liberty and freedom," he says, "because we're the great oppressors of the world right now, unfortunately. We're the ones who are pushing oppression upon a lot of the world. And I have found that out, especially once I got out and I can look in and I can see what we're doing. It just isn't right."


Payne and Lardy arrived at the Bundy ranch early on April 8. They were among the first supporters to show up. The Bundys were impressed that Payne had delivered on his commitment to come from so far away and were relieved to see help arrive. The BLM, fearful for the safety of its own agents, had brought in armed law enforcement for protection and was using helicopters to assist with the roundup.

"We're just a little farm family down here," says Ryan Bundy, who is one of Cliven Bundy's sons and who lives and works on the family's ranch, in an interview with the Indy. "We have a few hunting rifles and so forth, but we don't have military training, we don't have military equipment, we don't even have a decent shotgun that works right. And so, what are we gonna do against the might and force of the federal government and their paramilitary agents? So, when Ryan Payne shows up and the militia starts showing up, we can finally have a sigh of relief, a ray of hope that we have a little bit of defense."

The Bundy family's conflict with the federal government had been brewing for 20 years. It began in 1993, when the BLM eliminated some grazing privileges of Bundy and other local ranchers in order to protect the threatened desert tortoise. Cliven Bundy refused to obey, calling the action a "land grab" and letting his cattle graze on the now protected area. He was fined repeatedly for doing so but steadfastly refused to pay. Bundy wasn't the only rancher to clash with the BLM, but he was notable for his persistent defiance and his threats to resist enforcement, should it ever be attempted.

In April, in response to a federal court order, the BLM finally acted to stop Bundy's illegal grazing. The agency shut down 322,000 acres of public land and began rounding up his "trespass cattle," which would be auctioned off unless Bundy paid his fees. By the time Payne arrived on the ranch, cowboys working for the BLM had gathered around 100 head of Bundy cattle.

Bundy wanted them back, and Payne outlined a plan for retrieving them. The plan would require a strong response to OMA's call for militia support. Payne was confident it would come.

"We sat down and we discussed three objectives for the militia effort there," Payne says. "And I presented these objectives to him, and he agreed that they were good. He liked them. The first objective was the safety and security of all people involved—the Bundy family, the supporters and all of the law enforcement and pseudo law enforcement that was involved. ... The second objective was to reopen all public lands that had been shut down by the BLM. They had their signs up everywhere. You heard about the First Amendment Zones [designated protest areas], I'm sure. What a ridiculous notion that is. ... And the third one was the return of all stolen cattle and infrastructure."

As they waited for more supporters to arrive, tensions built. On April 9, they erupted. That Wednesday, members of Bundy's family and a small contingent of supporters clashed with BLM agents outside the ranch. Smartphones and cameras recorded as armed BLM agents pushed a woman to the ground, allegedly threatened a pregnant woman with a police dog and tasered Cliven's son Ammon Bundy.

The footage went viral. Then mainstream news outlets began to cover the rising tensions, some casting Bundy as a brave and righteous rebel fighting the brutal and impersonal government machine. Meanwhile, OMA's call for support spread in message boards and elsewhere online. Militia members, Patriots and other sympathizers from around the country responded, flocking to the ranch with weapons and supplies, forming encampments and preparing for a bigger confrontation with the BLM.

As people came, Payne emerged—reluctantly, he says—as the militia's de facto leader.

"I'm an advisor and coordinator for OMA," Payne says, "and I was Mr. Bundy's militia liaison. He would tell me what he had planned, and then I would advise him as to what the militia could accomplish in support of that."

He organized the militia into units and pursued the objectives he and Bundy had agreed upon. As he set about planning a strategy for accomplishing those goals, Payne drew heavily on his Army experience.

"It's all in the Ranger handbook," he says. "The Ranger handbook is like the quintessential fighting man's story. You know, how to do this—everything to be a fighting guy. And having served in that type of unit, that was my Bible. I carried it around on me everywhere I went."


Twenty years ago, when Ryan Payne was 10 and living in Southern California, the American militia movement was emerging just 240 miles northwest of Anaconda, in the town of Noxon.

"Beginning on February 15, 1994, the organizers of the Militia of Montana—John, David, and Randy Trochmann—used gun control as fuel to launch America's first active militia group," writes Kenneth S. Stern in A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate.

The Trochmanns, Stern continues, effectively argued "that gun control is not really to control guns, but for 'people control' by an evil government." The message resonated in Montana. Crowds came to hear the Trochmanns speak about foreign control of the federal government, the "banking elite" that controlled the world economy, the need for a return to constitutional principles, and the American citizen's right and duty to stop the tyranny of the federal government by organizing into armed militias. The Militia of Montana added members, and similar groups emerged in other states.

As the militia movement grew in the mid-1990s, federal ownership and regulation of public land became another prominent source of anti-government anger, especially in Western states, where substantial amounts of land are federally owned. "As with gun control," Stern writes, "the issues around land use were made for militia. Not only did they involve strongly felt concerns, but also the question of who was 'in control' was meat and drink to conspiracy theorists." Environmental laws, the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM all became sources of suspicion and conflict.

The rapid growth of the American militia movement culminated on April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh, a veteran from Michigan, detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The explosion collapsed the building and killed 168 people.

All of the movement's theorizing, organizing and threats had led to a horrific act of terrorism. Though the bombing inspired many extremists and instigated a brief surge in militia growth, it also created polarization within the movement and marginalized militias from mainstream American political culture. According to data complied by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes civil rights, combats hate groups and monitors militias, the number of Patriot groups in the United States peaked in 1996, when 858 militia and other extremist groups existed. That number dipped to 149 in 2008.

The election of Barack Obama, however, triggered a resurgence in militia activity and sympathy. SPLC counted 512 Patriot groups in 2009, 1,018 in 2011 and 939 in 2013. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Nadya Labi wrote, "The times are conducive to extremist anger: there is a black President, a sputtering economy, a disappearing white majority, and recurring talk of stricter gun laws." Another important factor in the revival of Patriot groups is the growing population—and disaffection—of veterans who served in the War on Terror.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis produced an assessment titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." While the report was never officially released due to objections from politicians about the focus on domestic rather than foreign threats from radicals, it was leaked. The report warned that "rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat. ... The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today."


On the morning of Saturday, April 12, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie showed up at one of the First Amendment Zones the BLM had established near the Bundy ranch. Cliven Bundy had invited him there to give him an ultimatum, but Gillespie preempted Bundy with news intended to diffuse the increasingly hostile situation. Gillespie told Bundy and a crowd of his supporters the BLM was going to end its roundup.

Bundy responded not with conciliation but by setting some conditions. He wanted the BLM agents disarmed, public land access restored and his confiscated cattle returned—and he gave Gillespie one hour to make it happen. When it didn't, Bundy told his supporters it was time to act. "Get it going cowboys," he said from a stage decorated in red, white and blue and heavily guarded by militia. "Let's go get 'er done."

A throng of militia, Patriots, ranchers, supporters and observers rushed off to the area about two miles away where his cattle were being held behind a fence. When they arrived, they encountered a group of BLM and law enforcement agents positioned to protect the livestock. A standoff ensued, and Payne took charge of organizing the militia forces and acted, he says, "as a kind of on-the-ground commander."

"We locked them down," Payne says. "We had counter-sniper positions on their sniper positions. We had at least one guy—sometimes two guys—per BLM agent in there. So, it was a complete tactical superiority. ... If they made one wrong move, every single BLM agent in that camp would've died."

Craig Leff, deputy assistant BLM director, denies the BLM employs snipers. "The BLM went through extraordinary lengths to avoid coming into contact with the Bundy family and protesters," he writes in an email.

Whether or not anyone was aiming back at them, the militia members believed they were being targeted. The perceived threat was defused, according to Payne, Ryan Bundy and other supporters present that day, by the providential appearance of thousands of cranes flying low and circling over the situation several times.

"And literally people that were on the ground were saying, 'Look, we've got air support,'" Payne says. "And people felt like everything was going to be okay. ... Right after that, the BLM started backing their vehicles up and let [the Bundys' cowboys] in to get the cattle.

"Was it an omen? Well, who knows," Payne continues. "People say that's superstitious and blah blah blah. Well, I've had way too many coincidences happen in my life to believe in coincidence."


"What does it mean to have 'a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence'? Do you know?"

Ryan Payne is sitting on his couch, in the living room of his family's log cabin near Anaconda. At his request, a guest has just read aloud the first half of the last line of the Declaration of Independence: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence. ...

"'Divine' obviously means 'the Creator', but what is providence?" Payne asks. "Providence is the Creator's plan, his involvement with every aspect of every part of the universe. Thus, we are moving along a plan and the only reason that we feel discomfort is when we are not in line with that plan and He gives us pain or evil to make us feel uncomfortable. But when you're completely in line with the Creator's plan, there's no discomfort, there's no pain, there's no suffering.

"You see, these are the concepts that are talked about in the Bible that people have lost," he explains. "But how did the Founders, who all knew they were signing their death warrants—why were they comfortable with this? Because they had a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, that they were in line with the plan. And you can kill me, you can take all of my money, you can steal all of my possessions, but as long as I know that I'm moving in the right direction, that I have maintained the moral high ground, that I focus on truth, love and unity at all times, there's no fear. There's no suffering. I enjoy the pain that happens, because I know that it's for the right reasons. A greater cause than myself."

Payne then moves to the second part of the sentence: "... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

"So what are you willing to pledge your life to?" Payne asks. "Your life, your fortune and your sacred honor—are you willing to put it up for freedom? That's the question that people need to ask themselves."


On April 17, five days after the BLM drew back and the Bundys recovered their cattle, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of the Bundy supporters, "Those people who hold themselves out to be patriots are not. They're nothing more than domestic terrorists."

For Payne, the Bundys and the hundreds of others who had engaged in the standoff with the BLM, the comments were an affront and a terrifying escalation in the terms of the conflict.

"Why it is an escalation?" Payne says. "Because we know how the government deals with terrorists. They don't negotiate, do they? They kill them. ... So that's a gigantic escalation. That's a statement of war. You have made yourself my enemy now. If I'm a domestic terrorist, then you're my enemy, right? Because you want me dead."

Soon after Reid labeled the Bundy supporters "terrorists," the FBI began to investigate militia members and protesters involved in the standoff for making death threats, intimidation, weapons violations and pointing loaded weapons at federal agents. Those investigations are ongoing.

Asked how he's able to continue living his normal lifetaking care of his kids, working on his house, going out for dinner, visiting with relatives—amid the seemingly inevitable threat of arrest and prosecution, Payne says, "If you were planning to go rob a bank, you'd be scared the whole time. You'd be making sure there wasn't infiltrators. You're always looking over you're shoulder. But, if you were protecting a bank, wouldn't you go home and sleep peacefully at night? Okay. Well, that's why we're so calm. 'Cause we're doing the right thing and we know it."


The SPLC's Ryan Lenz was on the Bundy ranch on April 12, and he later spoke at length with Payne and others involved in the standoff about their beliefs and their motivations.

Lenz says Bundy supporters relied on a convoluted conspiracy to justify their aggression against the BLM in Nevada. The conspiracy was based, Lenz says, on a web of premises that simply aren't true: that the BLM isn't part of the government but is rather "a private corporation employed by the federal government to enforce federal rules;" that the BLM introduced non-native desert tortoises in the early 1990s in a deliberate effort to justify closing the land for grazing and recreational use; and that Sen. Reid orchestrated this closure in order to make possible a profitable deal to sell the land to Chinese developers seeking to develop solar farms on the land.

While Lenz acknowledges the room for legitimate policy debate about the BLM and public land policy in Clark County and elsewhere, he says such conspiratorial beliefs and the taking up of arms undermine any possibility for productive discussion.

"It's no longer just a debate about policy," he says. "The debate is null and void, because you believe the debate exists on a premise that's a lie ... and that's where things get really complicated, because this issue about federal lands being managed by the BLM and being managed poorly, that's one for those who debate policy to discuss. But once the militias come in and threaten violence to the federal government if they dare do anything, the discussion is over. The debate is done. What happens at that point is, the only debate that's going to be had is going to be had at the barrel of a gun."


After five years and two tours in Iraq, Payne returned home to Southern California in 2006. He was 23 and married. Later that same year, he and an uncle started a company, SoCal Sand Cars. They built custom, high-end dune buggies that sold for between $40,000 and $100,000. When the housing market started to falter late in 2006, so did the once-booming dune buggy and sand car market. Though they started losing money, Payne and his uncle kept their business going until the California Air Resources Board implemented stricter emissions regulations on dune buggies in the state.

"When they redefined the criteria that sand cars and desert race cars fell under," Payne says, "it destroyed turn-key builders like myself, unless you had a giant buy-in."

That "buy-in" was the high cost of purchasing a dynamometer, a machine that tests emissions, or of paying a lab to do the emissions tests. Unable to afford the price of complying with the new regulations, SoCal Sand Cars closed down.

"And that's what we see in the entire country," Payne says, "that specific entities are being given certain privileges by government regulation and the inability of the little guy, the small business owner, to really keep his head above water. There has to be purpose in this. They claim to have all the answers, they claim to be taking us down the correct path, and yet it seems like there's a lot of destruction and pain and suffering going on. ... Here's the way you have to look at it. Either they're not smart, they don't know what they're doing and they're just downright incompetent. Or they have a plan, and they're doing these things on purpose."

Payne came to believe the latter, that the government uses regulations to deliberately undermine the average American, "that they are purposely destroying industry, they are purposely taking this land from people." The more he looked, the more he saw a deliberate and nefarious plan being orchestrated by a small number of people wielding enormous power. He saw a pervasive conspiracy to control all aspects of the media, the financial system, the entertainment industry, the military and the government.

More specifically, he came to believe that slavery never really existed in the United States and that African Americans in the antebellum South "didn't view themselves as slaves." He came to believe in "an effort by some Jews to control the world." He came to believe the founders of the United States intended for the states to act as sovereign countries. He came to believe taxes are a form of "legal plunder." He came to believe names are spelled in all-caps on driver's licenses because U.S. citizens are actually "corporate entities." He came to believe U.S. courts are actually foreign admiralty courts. He came to believe that "in most states you have the lawful authority to kill a police officer that is unlawfully trying to arrest you." He came to believe when a newborn child's footprint is made on a birth certificate, that child is effectively entering a life of servitude to the U.S. government, which borrows money from China based on that child's estimated lifetime earning potential.

He came to see all aspects of government, culture and society as mechanisms of control. "And they've set everything up so they can maintain that control," Payne says, "because they believe they are God."

As Payne became convinced that conspiracies exist to control the world's people, he also moved from agnosticism to a deep belief in a Creator. "I'm a Jew," Payne says. "A Messianic Jew. A Kabbalist, even." These mystical and often controversial traditions of Judaism accommodated his faith as well as his suspicions of religion, which he considers "clothing for the truth."

With faith, rebelling against control became a matter of fighting to bring about the utopian world God wants for us, a world of complete and perfect liberty.

"The point is," Payne says, "communism is a utopian society. There is not government in communism. The government is the people. So, in order for that to exist, mankind has to reach a state where he is—where he, as a whole, has the responsibility and the morality to control himself. Self-government. Communism is full self-government. What is this an experiment in, America? Self-government."


Payne remained on the Bundy ranch for nearly a month, organizing the militia elements to defend against any potential efforts by the BLM to return and clashing with other supporters. Then, in early May, a man and his family came and asked for Payne's help. Payne was "ungodly sick at the time," he says, but he listened while the man requested he come to Utah and help the people of Blanding, near the Four Corners, open an ATV trail that the BLM had closed.

The trail ran through Recapture Canyon, an area rich with Ancestral Puebloan ruins and artifacts, with ancient cliff dwellings and a prehistoric village. The trail was created illegally in 2005 and severely damaged the valuable archaeological site. Local ATV riders, however, had been campaigning the BLM to reopen it. While the agency conducted environmental and archeological assessments to determine if there were a way to do so, people became restless. San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman responded to this restlessness by organizing a protest.

On May 10, locals would push past a BLM gate and drive the 11-mile Recapture Canyon loop to protest the closure. The man from Blanding wanted Payne to come and do what he'd done for the Bundys: protect the ATV riders from the BLM.

Payne agreed to do it. He and some others from the ranch, including Ryan Bundy, drove east to Utah. The BLM, meanwhile, decided to avoid confrontation, pull its agents back and allow the ride to proceed. In a statement, the agency's state head, Juan Palma, assured the public, though, that "BLM-Utah has not and will not authorize the proposed ride and will seek appropriate civil and criminal penalties against anyone who uses a motorized vehicle within the closed area."

With no ostensible need to protect the protest, Ryan Payne participated that Saturday, May 10, driving the loop with everyone else.

"So here's another win," he says.


Days after the Recapture ride, Payne finally returned home to Anaconda. His wife, his infant daughter, his 4-year-old son and his elderly grandparents had been making do without him for more than a month, living off the grid. Payne had lots to catch up on around the house, but he wasn't leaving the last month behind. The proof was in his driveway, where an RV was parked. Josh "Pony" Hartle, an itinerant militiaman from Minnesota, and another man, an amateur geologist and confirmed Patriot who does not want to be named, were staying inside. They were here to help keep the effort that had begun on the Bundy ranch moving forward.

"One of the things that the powers that be—and I say that as meaning all those that desire control over mankind—really, really hate about the Bundy situation is that it brought a bunch of people that all have the same ideas but have been moving in different directions together," Payne says, with Hartle and the amateur geologist sitting on the couch beside him. "And now, we'll all focus our energies in this way or that. Or utilize our different skills to approach the entire battle in a full manner, encompassing every avenue of engagement: legal, financial, military, every single aspect of it is being put together now on how to counter this control mechanism that's been set up. This is what they fear the most."

The geologist is committed to staying in the area; he believes he's found valuable meteoritic rocks near Payne's house and is hoping to have them verified. Hartle is planning to return to Minnesota, sell his house and then move with his wife back to Anaconda. They would live, Hartle explains, in a 32-foot school bus he's converted into a mobile home, so he could keep working with Payne. Meanwhile, Payne is training with the West Mountain Rangers and pursuing a philanthropic business venture that would employ out-of-work and homeless veterans. He is also trying to get back to his normal life as a father and an electrician.

"They want to paint militia in this light of complete insanity and extremism," Payne says, "but you see my house. You see my family. I live with my grandparents. My wife's at work. My kids are here. I live in this place, this beautiful place. I would much rather work as we were intended. You should be working for your own prosperity, shouldn't you?"

While Payne says he would rather not leave his family again, it seems inevitable that he will. He could be forced to leave, if charges against him are pursued and he's arrested for his part in the Bundy standoff. Or he might leave of his own free will, to respond to OMA's next request for aid. Either way, Payne says he's willing to lay down his life to resist and defend against tyranny.

"Not only would we take a shot for each other," he says, "we'd take one for you. If somebody infringed on your rights, you call me up. I'll come stand in between you and the police. It doesn't bother me, if they're infringing on your rights. Whoever it is. If somebody's threatening your life, if somebody's trying to say, 'You're not allowed to do this because we're the authority'—no. You're the authority. You're free to do whatever you want in your life as long as you don't take your brother's feet out from under him. That's what freedom is."

Though Payne keeps talking for another hour or so, eventually he has to go. He canceled plans earlier in the afternoon to shoot gophers with visiting relatives, and he can't be late for dinner. His family is counting on him being there.

June 4, 2014

Delist desert tortoise


Being a desert tortoise truther these days can’t be an easy job.

For more than two decades, the shelled reptile, designated a threatened species, has received federal protection. The problem: desert tortoises are about as threatened as pigeons. Maybe even less so, a point further established by the Review-Journal’s Henry Brean in a report that announced an expansion of the Las Vegas-based Tortoise Group’s adoption program to Reno, Sparks, Carson City and Gardnerville.

Yes, there are so many desert tortoises that they need to be shipped out of the desert.

The tortoise truthers say that, while the number of pet tortoises has exploded, tortoises in the wild still need that protection. But any attempt to distinguish between wild desert tortoises and those on golf courses, in backyards or kept as pets is so politically expedient as to be nauseating. The fact is desert tortoises are everywhere — and pretty soon, with this new program, some won’t even be in the desert!

For years, as Mr. Brean reported, the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service used to take in pets and strays at its Desert Tortoise Conservation Center on the valley’s southwestern edge. Officials put a stop to that in early 2013 because the flood of tortoises — as many as 1,000 a year — threatened to overwhelm the facility’s budget and damage its research mission: saving the wild population. Indeed, the center is expected to close by year’s end, it’s funding eliminated. And good riddance. The center’s mission was a solution in search of a problem.

In fact, over the years, government intervention on behalf of our fine shelled friends has done far more harm than good. The best example: In 2008, about 770 tortoises from Fort Irwin were released into the wild of the California desert —and 90 percent of them were quickly devoured by predators.

If desert tortoises can — and are allowed to — live in a garage in Sparks when it’s 10 degrees outside, then there is no need for government protection. It’s time to delist this animal and open up more land to productive use. The desert tortoise is not in any way a threatened species. That’s the truth.