Taxpayer-Funded Nevada “Ranch” Threatens Neighbors & Food Production

It is a long-standing tenet of agricultural communities: Neighbors will either help make or break an adjacent farm or ranch. Most American farmers and ranchers trust their neighbors to be honest, help watch out for their interests, and lend a hand when needed. Sadly, some cannot count on neighbors to be supportive or helpful. Bad neighbors are difficult enough when they are individuals or private entities. When they’re government agencies with unlimited taxpayer dollars to draw upon, engaging in unethical and even unlawful practices, and aided with the apparent cooperation of additional government agencies, the dynamic changes to one of unending threats and challenges.

For nearly 20 years, eastern Nevada ranchers have been forced to contend with, and compete against, the seemingly untouchable taxpayer-funded governmental juggernaut that is the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). Even before it became an official entity in 1991, in 1989 SNWA revealed its plan to pump 58 billion gallons of water annually from Lincoln and White Pine Counties to the city of Las Vegas via a pipeline. Many believe those two counties were only the first to be targeted since, once installed, the pipeline could easily be extended to other water sources. The proposed pipeline would have been 300 miles long and cost more than $15 billion.

To lay the proverbial groundwork to build the pipeline, it was necessary for SNWA to buy ranches and the associated water rights. Beginning in 2006, SNWA bought seven ranches encompassing nearly 25,000 acres of deeded land and grazing rights on nearly one million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. SNWA also filed for water rights from numerous sources on rangelands, some of which weren’t on their permitted grazing areas. SNWA paid approximately 10 times more for the ranches than their market value at that time, costing taxpayers $79 million.

Following a lengthy legal battle, in 2020, a court decision shut down the pipeline project due to its devastating environmental impact on the affected areas. The pipeline’s resulting cultural and economic damage to the region would have been incalculable.

However, SNWA hedged its bets. Due to the nature of Nevada’s “use it or lose it” water laws, SNWA started playing “rancher” to retain their water rights, and formed Great Basin Ranch. SNWA went so far as to call themselves “stewards of the ranching lifestyle,” and registered a livestock brand with the Nevada Department of Agriculture. The brand is a symbolic “falling water G.”

Expansive and Expensive

Home to approximately 5,000 sheep and 2,500 cattle, the expansive and expensive Great Basin Ranch is 132 miles long from northern boundary to southern boundary. SNWA has made enemies on both ends. Despite having all the trappings of a legitimate ranching operation, and deploying a carefully crafted public relations campaign, SNWA has fallen far short of the ethics and integrity that are hallmarks of true ranchers.

To his detriment, Hank Vogler has been one of the most active and vocal opponents of SNWA’s proposed pipeline project. He was once quoted as saying:

“It flabbergasts me that for unlimited growth, we’re willing to sacrifice the 16 rural counties of Nevada. They’ve decided it’s better to destroy half of Nevada or better to make golf courses and swimming pools available to tourists in Las Vegas. Everyone in the state of Nevada is going to pay for this folly. It’s beyond laughing. This is scandalous.”

In 2006, SNWA purchased what was originally the R.B. Robison ranch. Vogler and Robison had been partners and shared certain mixed-species BLM grazing allotments. In 2004, prior to SNWA’s purchase of the base property and attached grazing rights, Vogler had purchased the sheep animal unit months (AUMs) on an allotment that his sheep once shared with Robison cattle.

“It’s My Job to Put You Out of Business”

A three-year monitoring study was supposed to have been initiated by the BLM in 2002 to officially allocate the number of sheep and cattle AUMS for the allotted land. The study was never completed, and it is unlikely to be completed. Vogler attributes this to the dereliction of the BLM’s mission in the area. For 20 years, Vogler has worked to get the relevant paperwork submitted and reviewed by BLM, but he’s been told it would be a “career ender” for any BLM employee who dared to address it. One of the water sources that SNWA filed on is in this allotment.

Immediately after SNWA’s purchase of the ranch, Vogler became a target and the situation turned ugly. Had SNWA been a good neighbor, it would have shared the allotment as Robison and Vogler had in the past. Vogler’s ranch and BLM allotments border the northern end of SNWA’s holdings. Vogler, and his employees, have endured harassment, vandalism and physical violence. At one point, Vogler was directly told by former Great Basin Ranch manager, Merlin Flake, “It’s my job to put you out of business.”

The sheep AUMs Vogler rightfully bought and paid for seem to have been intentionally shelved or conveniently lost in the BLM bureaucracy. Vogler has been blocked from presenting his case with the full history of the allotment, most of which is best suited for sheep due to the steep terrain and types of vegetation. Now, for having his sheep on the allotment he has legally and sustainably utilized since 1990, he has been slapped with “willful trespass” fines. He might have paid them, but was advised not to because doing so would appear to be an admission of guilt. The BLM came back with compounded fines, which were based on incorrect dates and inaccurate animal numbers, according to Vogler. His efforts to rectify the situation have been stonewalled.

“The administrative law judge basically punted. He did not even look at our points. Three hundred thousand dollars later, we have appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA),” Vogler said. The IBLA is “supposed to do the right thing,” but they may or may not give the case standing. The next step is federal court. In early April 2024, Vogler received notice of a motion to dismiss his case.

Shameless Encroachment on Forage & Water Rights

On the southern end of Great Basin Ranch, SNWA has done its own willful trespassing, in blatant disrespect for their neighbors and flagrant violation of an official 1963 BLM usage agreement for the Dry Lake Valley Use Area (DLVUA). The agreement had worked well for the 11 involved ranchers for nearly 50 years, until one of them sold out to SNWA.

Kena Gloeckner’s family has been ranching in the area for over a century. In a Range Magazine article, she was quoted as saying:

“From the first year (SNWA) purchased the ranches and began running their sheep in common with our cattle, we have been bullied and harassed. They have a team of attorneys and an insurmountable number of support staff to forward any kind of narrative that supports their agenda to the BLM, politicians, and judges. It’s almost impossible for the common rancher to compete against them.”

Notably, SNWA attorneys are taxpayer-funded.

Gloeckner stated that upon discovery of 2,000 SNWA sheep in her ranch’s usage area and water source, she was told by GBR manager, Bernard Petersen:

“Honey, if you believe my sheep need to stay beyond some imaginary line, you are dreaming. My sheep can graze anywhere they want between Highway 318 and Highway 93, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

“All ranchers have an unwritten code of ethics,” Gloeckner said. “One of those beliefs is that if it’s not yours, don’t touch it. But we’ve had problem after problem.” Gloeckner and other ranchers teamed up to hire Karen Budd-Falen, who is regarded as one of the best private property rights attorneys in the nation, especially regarding Western ranching issues. The group has spent thousands fighting SNWA’s encroachment on their water rights and forage, with no end in sight.

Death by A Thousand Cuts

Years prior, when the pipeline project was still being considered, Vogler expressed the same sentiment: “I can’t afford to hire a $500-an-hour fire-breathing dragon to fight against the SNWA’s 25 fire-breathing dragons, so they will take me down with a thousand paper cuts.”

And indeed, that seems to be the intention. Gloeckner believes, as do many, that the SNWA is simply biding its time, playing rancher at enormous taxpayer expense, all the while chipping away at legitimate generational ranches to put them out of business so there would be no senior water rights holders left to fight against a potential future pipeline.

Ironically, in a 2015 Las Vegas Sun article, SNWA board member Bob Coffin was quoted as saying: “We can’t just helicopter up and dump money in and make them love us. We just have to treat them fairly.”

Wrongful Possession?

Aside from SNWA’s bullying tactics, there is a legitimate case against the legality of their usage of BLM grazing permits. State agencies are not technically allowed to utilize federally managed grazing permits, even if an agency owns the base property to which grazing permits are attached. If an agency owns a base property and leases it to an individual, the individual can then apply to utilize attached grazing permits. Even so, there have been instances of another state agency, the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), leasing to SNWA. It’s believed by many of those familiar with the situation that the late U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) facilitated the crossing of many traditional, long-standing, proverbial lines.

The Taylor Grazing Act was enacted in 1934 to organize and regulate livestock grazing on unclaimed lands in the western United States. This Act established that land could no longer be claimed under the Homestead Act, created grazing districts, apportioned grazing allowances, and led to the formation of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to manage the use of lands commonly referred to as public lands. It is important to note that the term “public lands” isn’t entirely accurate; while the land is owned by the public and managed by federal agencies, the land’s resources, such as minerals, timber, and grass are owned by private entities, in a concept known as split estate.

Section 315b of the Taylor Grazing Act states:

“Grazing permits shall be issue only to citizens of the United States or to those who have filed the necessary declarations of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws, and to groups, associations, or corporations authorized to conduct business under the laws of the State in which the grazing district is located. Preference shall be given in the issuance of grazing permits to those within or near a district who are landowners engaged in the livestock business, bona fide occupants or settlers, or owners of water or water rights.”

While there may seem to be loopholes that allow for SNWA to lawfully utilize BLM grazing permits, as recently as 2017, official decisions by the solicitor general of the BLM indicate otherwise. Although a ruling was made in an altogether different case, the statement plainly reads: “…a state government agency is not listed as eligible to hold a grazing permit with the BLM.”

The United States Forest Service (USFS) states outright that no federal, state, or county agency may hold a grazing permit.

SNWA maintains that the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) concluded that SNWA can indeed hold and utilize grazing permits, citing the dismissal of an N4 Grazing Board appeal in June of 2022. Vogler is a member of the N4 Grazing Board.

No Reasonable Explanation

Simeon Herskovits is an attorney for the Great Basin Water Network, a cooperative organization that fought tooth and nail to prevent the SNWA pipeline from being built. The Network includes both ranchers and environmental activists. “There’s no real reasonable explanation for them continuing to play the game of ranch ownership and management up here in White Pine County,” Herskovits was quoted as saying in an October 2022 Las Vegas 8 News Now article. “They are still somehow angling in the future for a toehold or a foothold to allow them to take rural water.”

Vogler agrees that SNWA is waiting for an “emergency” situation to emerge that would necessitate pipeline construction. Recent projections estimate that the water wouldn’t be needed in Las Vegas until 2035, and even if SNWA were to be allowed to build a pipeline in the future, construction would take at least a decade. Another possible reason is that SNWA wants to tie up loose ends is that possession of all AUMs associated with their ranch would make a tidier package in case SNWA ever needs to divest the ranches.

“They made a hell of a mistake with taxpayer money,” Vogler believes. SNWA’s gargantuan financial blunder didn’t end with the overpriced purchase of the ranches. In 2015, a former accountant filed a lawsuit against SNWA, alleging that he was forced to create fallacious reports for several years, showing small annual profits rather than the actual significant financial losses of Great Basin Ranch.

“From the moment they were purchased, said ranches have been unprofitable, contrary to representations by defendants to the board of directors, ratepayers, and the media,” the former accountant stated.

Embarrassing Boondoggle Could Eliminate Sustainable Food Source

What happens if, in the future, SNWA is successful in securing pipeline approval to satisfy the endless thirst of Las Vegas? Some believe SNWA will abandon its embarrassing boondoggle in so-called ranching stewardship, and cast the functional agriculture of Great Basin Ranch aside like a broken toy.

With water being pumped to Las Vegas from limited aquifers, Great Basin Ranch would quite literally dry up, as would ranches around it, thereby effectively eliminating millions of acres of land from food production. The ever-increasing worldwide need for food requires continued efficient and sustainable production from every available source.

Grazing lands are a uniquely renewable food production resource. With proper management, livestock utilize the native forage and actually enable it to grow stronger the following year, meanwhile converting raw forage into delicious and nutritious protein. The vast majority of grazed lands are non-arable, yet support numerous uses benefiting all Americans.

True Stewardship is a Calling

True ranchers and farmers in America pride themselves on feeding Americans sustainably, as do many other nations. It’s a calling to serve, one that is much more than a mere bullet point on a resume. Hank Vogler has joked about having “a double recessive mutant gene” that has compelled him to build his life via agriculture. Let’s hope Nevada’s farming and ranching families can continue to do what they do best, and a costly water pipeline that does more harm than good never becomes a reality.

Related links:

Read more about Hank Vogler’s battle HERE

Read more about Western ranching HERE

Read about other taxpayer funded threats to Western ranching HERE

Read about related issues with SNWA HERE

Related Posts


Want to stay up-to-date on the stories we’re following and see how you can make a difference in the fight to keep our traditions alive?

© 2023 Protect The Harvest. All Rights Reserved

StoryBrand Website design by Results and Co.