David Stix wants the government’s hands off his stubble. But he is not fretting over facial hair. The Nevada rancher is bothered about tufts of grass — known to cattlemen as stubble and to his cows as food — which he says heavy-handed bureaucrats are over-regulating.
“We get beat up so bad. We’ve become the evil stepchildren,” he complains on a hilltop blanketed by sagebrush.
Against the backdrop of a presidential election driven by anti-establishment rebellion, Mr Stix exemplifies rural Nevada’s version of anger over the status quo. An expanse of desert and mountains, 86 per cent of Nevada’s land is under federal control, the highest proportion of any state and a source of grievances that have simmered for years.
Ahead of the Republican caucuses in the state on Tuesday, most of the party’s presidential contenders are seeking to rally frustrated rural conservatives, a key part of the base, by vowing to transfer the land to state control. The frontrunner Donald Trump, however, has come out against the idea and been hit by Ted Cruz in a new campaign ad for “wanting to keep big government in charge”.
Steeped in the mythology of settlers who trekked west to find freedom in open spaces beyond the Mississippi river, modern-day ranchers have to lease pasture from the federal government because they do not own enough to sustain their animals. Ranchers pay $2.11 per month for each cow and calf pair, adding up to several thousand dollars a year for a typical herd, and they find themselves at Washington’s mercy.
Many of the federal government’s rules, including those on grass height, are aimed at protecting the sage grouse, an awkward, barrel-chested bird that has an oddly central role in land management because it is seen as a proxy for landscape health.
Since the 1970s, unpopular federal diktats have convulsed the American west in episodic (and bloodless) revolts waged by so-called sagebrush rebels. Today, fresh trouble is brewing, fuelled by Barack Obama’s green-minded presidency, the venom of the 2016 election and social media. “The new variants tend to cling to their guns and are a little more ragged at the edges,” says Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Tensions flared in a 2014 stand-off between officials and the gun-toting supporters of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who was indicted last week. He was battling attempts to confiscate his cattle in a dispute over government claims that he owes more than $1m in grazing fees. Earlier this year Mr Bundy’s sons were at the heart of a confrontation in Oregon in which one protester was killed.
At the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency in charge, officials downplay the Bundys as an isolated case. But the atmosphere in Nevada is so combustible that at some public meetings the BLM has taken to tying chairs together so they cannot be thrown.
JJ Goicoechea, a big-hatted rancher and chairman of the Eureka county commissioners, says tensions are at an all-time high and blames the tightening “stranglehold” of the Obama administration.
“There’s no doubt the events at the Bundy ranch emboldened some people who were on the edge,” he says. “There are those who co-operate. Then, I don’t want to call them vigilantes, but it’s starting to get there. I’m fearful for where we’re going.”
For most Republican presidential candidates, the solution is to shrink the federal government. Mr Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich have said Washington should cut its land holdings. But Mr Trump told an interviewer in January that he did not like the idea, saying “you don’t know what the state is going to do”. He has subsequently muddied his position.
Mr Stix, who is president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, brushes off attacks from environmentalists who want to ban grazing, saying ranchers are dedicated to conserving the sagebrush ecosystem because their cows would starve without it. He does not condone anyone breaking the law. But he has plenty of complaints about the BLM, which he explains on a swath of federal pasture encircling a speck of his own land where he has a cow pen.
He says the agency has cut the number of cows he can graze due to drought and he rails against a new rule forbidding grass-eating if stubble is shorter than seven inches. “All these issues they’re concerned with are not an exact science,” he says. The BLM says its rule is more flexible than ranchers realise.
Government officials stress that grazing is a privilege, not a right, and underscore their duty to preserve natural resources for hikers, campers and hunters as well as cattlemen.
The BLM also pays the high costs of fighting fires and the agency and ranchers disagree over whether the state government could afford to cover these expenses alone.
Harangued by those who want to “take back” the land, John Ruhs, the director of BLM Nevada, says federal territory was never anyone’s prime real estate, but what got left over after settlers had cherry-picked the best tracts.
Still, he acknowledges that the BLM must do a better job of communicating with ranchers. “If we do that in a confrontational way, we are going to get confrontational results,” he says. Given the dangers to his staff, he adds: “If there are threats, if there are people waving guns, obviously I’m not going to ask somebody to go into that kind of environment.”
The original sagebrush rebellion was sparked by Congress’s empowerment of a more interventionist BLM in 1976. Today, Mr Ruhs says social media has made it harder to contain localised disputes. “Now when we are dealing with issues, we have a lot of extra input from a lot of people that really don’t understand what the issue is.”
There is one thing, however, on which the two sides agree. BLM officials blanch when asked about people who dine on the bird they protect. And Mr Stix, the rancher, says: “It’d have to be a cold day in hell for me to eat sage grouse. You’d have to cook it all day to get your fork stuck in it.”