Jordan, even the local residents say they are sick of the
Freemen's irrational stance, and a local minister tells
the national media she is at a loss to explain what
pushed some former friends and neighbors so far, or why
they got that way.
maybe a cap produced by the Freeman line of agricultural
machinery is put away for good or the rhetoric against
federal intrusion is toned down and muted, maybe even
given a rest for now.
really wants it to be a "war" in the West,
despite the hyperbole about it. What they want mostly is
to level out the political playing field so they are not
so continuously falling back on a hill dominated by
politicians and bureaucrats who won't listen and urban
areas who can only hear the intentionally misguiding
message of the well-funded environmentalists.
indeed did the frustration get control of the senses of
the Freemen? When does it reach that point?
most places, like Fallon, Nevada, likely never. There's
no militia in this fading farm town, nothing even among
the small minority frustrated enough to be angry that
would ever come close to something like the Freemen.
it's worth looking at a vignette of their own
frustrations to see how things might happen -- in a way
they never will -- in Churchill County.
NV -- It seemed to at least some of those waiting in the
Fallon Convention Center for the election year meeting of
the Democratic Party that U.S. Senator Harry Reid was
somehow purposely delaying his arrival until well after
dark. Top of page
the senior senator from Nevada would show up at all in
this rural town was doubtful to others. He has a safe
seat, not up for re-election until 1998, and, in any
case, he had never relied on "cow county" votes
before. He is Vegas' man, secure in his power from the
still-surging strength of numbers in the south state
Reid doesn't need Churchill County. He doesn't really
need much of Northern Nevada at all, except that chunk he
can expect from the friendlier environs of lawn-tending
suburbs swirling out around Reno, itself growing nearly
as fast as Las Vegas.
weren't even real Democrats, most of them who waited for
him in Fallon. Some of them were nominally registered in
the party, but that was mostly out of old habit or
misguided belief that some local influence might change
the party direction. When the time came, they voted
mostly Republican. In 1992, Harry Reid didn't need the
handful of votes he got from Churchill County to sweep
aside the challenge of Republican rancher Delmar Dahl,
some of whose family lived in Fallon.
in fact, is probably at the apex of his power, able to
call most of the political shots in his state and
capable, some say, of intimidating the junior senator and
former governor, Richard Bryan, also a Democrat, into
falling in line with the Reid strategy.
really why they waited for him, even doubting as some did
that he would show up at all. It was for a close look at
the dominion over their state, a peek at a Machiavellian
Prince -- to see what charity he might be willing to
he was, as some suggested, just driving around until it
got dark enough for him to rush in the door, Reid need
not have done so. He has nothing really to fear from
Churchill County, certainly no more than he has to gain.
local newspaper, owned by a publisher from California who
fancies himself as some kind of mentoring cousin to his
unsophisticated circulation, prides itself on the softly
irrelevant wisdom it produces from the publisher's visits
to Reid's Washington D.C. offices where they discuss
gaming legislation and national defense issues that
inspire the publisher's own enthusiasm for patriotic
rambles into episodes of World War II.
editor of the paper, a buttery but genial former wife of
a Reno doctor who earned the job on college journalism
credentials, was among those waiting for Reid. She had a
set of questions on federal water policy issues that had
been written down for her by the manager of the local
irrigation district. She promised she'd ask Reid about it
right after she covered the more important questions
about the presidential campaign, and, as it turned out,
the senator's concern for national policy on female
had nothing to fear in Churchill County. No one would
dare so much as to raise their voice to him, and not
because they are afraid of Reid, but because they know
their neighbors would glare in admonishment of further
risking the senator's wrath against them all.
DeBraga, the president of the irrigation district, was
also among those waiting for Reid. His sister-in-law,
Marcia, is running for a second term as a Democrat in the
state assembly representing Churchill and part of
neighboring Lander County in a vast, desolate district
mostly owned by the federal government and populated in
pockets like Fallon.
Ted wasn't here just in support of Marcia's new campaign.
This was a community event, as basically non-partisan as
the Democratic Party in these parts really is, and
DeBraga was anticipating the arrival of the kingpin, the
real power player.
has known Reid since boyhood. Nevada used to be like that
in the 1940's and 50's when both of them were growing up
and towns like Fallon and Reid's own Searchlight sent
their adolescent athletic teams into contest with each
other at events that shortened the long, barren distances
between population centers and established generational
links on memories of the "big" games and the
and now, DeBraga is one of the local heroes. He seems
almost genetically constructed for the role. Tall, and
lankily athletic, DeBraga has a a demeanor that seems to
inspire confidence. His thick and neatly groomed hair has
aged perfectly into a silken white, but still reminds
them of the dashingly handsome young man he was.
is quiet spoken and seldom judgmental, nearly studious in
his patience to listen before saying something that,
almost in sum of his general presence, seems usually to
put an end to the matter without argument.
could easily be seen as a judge or head of the county
commission, but the spot he has occupied as President of
the Board of Directors of the Truckee Carson Irrigation
District for the last 18 years is, in many ways, an even
more influential position in Churchill County.
the irrigation district that holds this self-proclaimed
"Oasis of Nevada" together. That's even now,
when the expansion of Fallon's own growth is based
largely on the same retired equity from California that
is funding the growth of Las Vegas and Reno. Or on the
steadily expanding influence of the Naval Air Station and
"Top Gun" pilot training center on Fallon's
all still depends on the more than 500 miles of canals
and ditches that tie the community together -- in a
network of water arteries that not only feed irrigation
into the farms, but serve to replenish the ground water
base of wells that serve even the newest of subdivisions
beginning to appear on former agriculture lands.
place in it has been, longer than anybody else, at the
very pivot of that influence. He has been the one they
trusted most to make the important decisions and bring
together their own self-dividing squabbles over
neighboring rights and petty disputes.
that was why Harry Reid said Ted DeBraga was the one
person who wouldn't be welcome in the senator's office
when a local delegation went to Washington in 1994 to
appeal with the king for better understanding about what
his so-called "Settlement Act" would do to
waited outside while others, like Ernie Schank and Don
Travis, made their case to Reid. He didn't go in to see
the senator, but the others would not have thought of
making the trip to Washington without him.
couldn't be DeBraga whom Reid was avoiding that night of
the Democratic meeting. The thing in his office was two
years in the past, and much had already happened since
then to put it aside.
somebody suggested, it was that Reid still remembered the
gorilla. That's what made him so mad the last time the
senator actually encountered opposition in Churchill
County: The Gorilla.
was just a stuffed suit that usually sat outside Wally's
rock shop on the Reno Highway as another one of the
attention-getters like the old Navy mines and bomb
casings he has spread out there, but when Reid was coming
to town to celebrate his legislation that sucked water
out of irrigation and into the wetlands, somebody moved
the gorilla and put it along the route Reid had to
travel, among a number of other signs and banners on farm
trucks that compared Reid to less flattering ancestry
than he claimed.
knew it wasn't DeBraga who did that. Even Reid knew it.
Funny thing is, most people think Norm Frey had something
to do with it, and Norm was among those sitting in Harry
Reid's office while DeBraga waited outside.
the gorilla was back at the rock shop, and nobody was
planning any demonstrations even if Reid did show up to
electioneer for the Democrats.
politicians like Reid end up suffering with a special
kind of self-delusion that ought to be worth a paper in
psychology somewhere. They can't just be lying all the
time, even if it seems that way.
Reid actually seemed to believe it himself when he told
farmers and others from this Lahontan Valley on more than
one occasion that they, "ought to be grateful"
for what he has done for them.
sat there looking like calves caught in the headlights
when he told them that at a hearing in Reno at the end of
had your chance," he lectured to them from a podium
alongside Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ). "You had your
chance and you ran from the hard decisions," he
said, stabbing a sharp pencil down in their direction for
emphasis. "Now things are going to change and I'm
going to do what is best for the taxpayers of this
country and the state of Nevada."
just sat there, wide-eyed in a sort of shock. Maybe he
was just still mad about the gorilla.
they needed to be "grateful" for
was Reid's 1990 legislation that remakes the
essential purpose of the Newlands Reclamation Project
from a combined irrigation source of water from the
Truckee and Carson Rivers into a federally-enforced new
division of the water. This new division favors spawning
grounds for a supposedly endangered sucker fish at the
Pyramid Lake end of the Truckee and a restored wetlands
marsh to cover 25,000 acres at the desert-sink terminus
of the Carson.
supply of water for the fish and the wetlands combined
would amount to more than the irrigation district uses in
an average year, but Reid told them to be grateful for
what they got.
of the agricultural valley, on the news and talk shows of
Reno, Reid kept talking about "the train leaving the
station," and the need for Congress to review its
old legislation like the 1902 Reclamation Act that
created the irrigation project. He tried to make himself
sound colloquial and senatorial all at the same time, as
if it really mattered. At the Reno hearing, he
acknowledged himself as, "the Devil in Churchill
legislation he is so proud of only slipped by the 101st
Congress at the last minute of the session with a margin
of one vote. Even the credit he claims for it probably
belongs more to Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye who at least
wrote into it some protections for the Shoshone-Paiute
Tribe of Churchill County that Reid had ignored or
if they weren't altogether grateful to Reid for it, the
people of Churchill County and the Lahontan Valley could
at least see the need to bend down in his presence.
had already formed their own local organizations meant to
take some of the steam off from the failure of the
irrigation district to win Reid's favor and maybe to come
up with some compromise that might still slow down the
federal juggernaut against them.
one reason they eagerly accepted the participation of
Graham Chisholm of The Nature Conservancy as part of
their own "Environmental Alliance" on the
issue. Never mind that Chisholm was following the
strategy directives of TNC itself to work its way into
"grass roots organizations," or that it was TNC
and Chisholm himself who would be out offering cash of
their own, or of Del Webb Corporation in Las Vegas, to
farmers willing to sell their land and water rights.
Chisholm and the TNC were already grateful to Reid.
at least the locals still held out some hope that maybe
Reid just didn't understand it all, or that he just
needed to see some county contrition for the gorilla
thing. That's why even after the hearing when Reid and
Bradley lectured them about the way things were going to
be, they still sent the delegation back to Washington,
the delegation from which Reid said DeBraga wouldn't be
got a better audience in Reid's office than some have.
Certainly better than the high school kid from Lincoln
County who visited there as part of a senior honors trip
last year and dared to ask Reid why federal lands
couldn't be returned to the state. Reid threw that boy
out of his office in a memorable fit of temper.
least the delegation from Churchill County got an
agreement from Reid to allow some professionally mediated
discussion among the principles on implementation of his
they got those talks going late on into 1994, Ted DeBraga
stayed out of the limelight, hoping not to set Reid off
again. The senator only made a token appearance to begin
the talks, anyway. After that, it was Ernie Schank and a
professional negotiator the irrigation district had hired
on its own who sat down across from representatives of
Reid's staff, the lawyer from the Pyramid Lake Tribe,
representatives of the Sierra Pacific Power Company, Reno
and Sparks officials, and a contingent of
environmentalists led by David Yardas of the
Environmental Defense Fund and Graham Chisholm of The
odds for the farmers were about like those between Haiti
and the Marines. Six months after they started, the talks
were over with both sides refusing to acknowledge
absolute failure by suggesting they at least, "got
to know each other better."
time, Harry Reid didn't have to remind Churchill County
to be grateful to him. He had done what he promised. He
let them talk, now the train was moving on.
did tell one local interviewer that he was sure
"agriculture will continue" in Churchill
County, but he and ever-more-confident federal
bureaucrats were talking about a different
"scale" for the future--maybe just half the
farms or a little less.
Walker is too much of an out-front Republican to have
been waiting for Reid that night. She ran against Marcia
DeBraga the time before, and from her position with the
Churchill Economic Development Authority seemed to be
getting ready to do so again.
Walker also knows Reid and his position on the future of
Churchill County. It could be that the senator didn't
recognize her among that delegation of rural development
agencies that met with him in D.C. after the negotiations
office denies he ever said it, but Walker and the others
heard him when the senior senator told them the Truckee
Canal will be closed down and filled in by the beginning
of the next century.
never made the local paper. It's the sort of thing folks
in the Lahontan Valley don't want to hear anyway. If the
canal is filled in, it will finish on the spot the farms
and ranches around Fernley and the old railroad junction
of Hazen that rely on the water diverted from the Truckee
River. It would finish them immediately, and tighten the
strangle on the rest that are dependent on combined
waters of the Truckee and Carson in Lahontan Reservoir.
The senator, his staff said, never said that.
certainly wouldn't be coming to an election year meeting
to tell them something like that anyway. In fact, the
doubters didn't see that there could be much he could
tell them. Why waste his time?
could he get out of Churchill County that Reid didn't
already have? His amendment to the grazing act before the
Senate was in the process of being filibustered to death
by Western colleagues like Pete Domenici of New Mexico
who saw what Reid and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt
were trying to do by attaching a new provision that read:
United States is directed to assert its claims, and
exercise its right to all water developed on public lands
for the benefit of public resources."
other words, Reid wanted the federal government to snatch
even more control of water in the west, even from the
states, and especially from the Lahontan Valley.
wouldn't be something that the senator could discuss in
Fallon. He wouldn't be asking for help in ending the
probably expected to lose that one anyway, and if it gets
right down to it, there seem to be easier, if slightly
more devious, ways of pulling away private water rights.
Chisholm knows that. Good-guy Graham, with all his grass
roots contacts, was helping to make it easier on the
people of the Lahontan Valley by offering green
greenbacks to get them out of the inevitable with some
profit. He'd already peeled off a number of farms with
help from the daily radio pitches made by the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service for "willing sellers" to
turn over their rights to Pyramid Lake and the wetlands,
and Graham was about to announce his centerpiece purchase
of Randy Weishaupt's land and near-new farmhouse on the
very edge of the existing wetlands.
might be something Harry Reid could be proud of in
visiting Churchill County, except that there might be
some complication in explaining why Graham wanted to use
Del Webb money to buy the place in return for a swap of
federal land around Las Vegas that the developer wanted.
Del Webb one of Harry Reid's main campaign contributors?
The sort of social-conscience corporation that helped
Reid rise from his often-proclaimed poor roots in
Searchlight to the most powerful position in the state?
People in Churchill County, who never gave a dime to Reid
even if they could afford it, might not understand that.
they could probably understand Reid's latest legislation
intended to clear the way for still more trades of
Vegas-area federal property in return for
"environmentally sensitive" private lands. They
might even admire the public relations pitch of it to
turn over a $60 million mansion at Lake Tahoe to the
public good graces of the U.S. Forest Service. And the
fact that the senator they considered a friend of their
county, former Governor Dick Bryan, was co-sponsoring the
bill would surely remove any doubts.
so, some of them might see the real intent of the bill in
making it easier to acquire private farms and grazing
areas in the north-central part of the state for the good
of Reid's friends around Vegas.
nasty political stuff, worse than rolling around an 800
pound stuffed gorilla on county roads. Nobody in
Churchill County was likely to risk questioning Reid
face-to-face about it.
as it got darker and darker that night, some folks
figured Reid had plenty of reasons not to show up in
Fallon, even if he said he would.
that's just it, see. It's why somebody ought to do the
psychology paper on political self-delusion. Because Reid
did show up, all proud and Democratic and colloquial and
acting like he was happy to see his old friends.
even stopped to talk to Ted DeBraga and wanted to
reminisce with Ted about the time they played baseball
together as kids, even though Ted was a star on his
Fallon team and Reid spent most of his time on the bench
editor of the paper got her chance to interview the
senator and asked him about the national campaigns and
the gaming oversight that Congress was considering and
the good news that the Navy base around here was still
growing. And, true to her word, she posed the questions
the irrigation district had written down for her about
the future of water in the valley, and what compensation
folks here might expect for their losses.
senator said he didn't have time for those right away.
He'd get back to her with a letter in a week or so.
self-described as "The Devil in Churchill
County," Harry Reid shook Ted DeBraga's hand again
in grinning memory of that long ago lost game and headed
back into the night from which he'd come.