Property rights’ groups come of age |

Property rights’ groups come of age

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series about the property rights movement in the United States and Nevada County.)

This land is whose land, and who decides what they get to do with it?

The battle and the combatants are familiar in the land-use debate. Feuding citizen groups – you could call them The Coalition of Friends of the Topographical Feature versus the Real Americans Protecting the Frontiers of Freedom – are normally recognizable by nomenclature and creed.

Generally, liberals support government protection of land. Conservatives call it regulation and intrusion, and wage “a battle against the utopian socialist greens,” said Grant Gerber, a director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a property rights organization.

Land-use has become a volatile political issue in Nevada County, sharply dividing residents over the need for Natural Heritage 2020, influencing the outcome of elections, and spawning a drive for a land-use ballot initiative in the county.

“We believe that environmental stewardship begins with private property ownership,” said Henry Lamb, founder of the Environmental Conservation Organization. “Private owners are far better stewards of land and resources than a committee of idiots in Gland, Switzerland,” he said referring to a United Nations committee.

In the mid-1980s, Lamb said he was “happily running a construction company” in western Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas “when I ran into a ‘wetlands.'”

“We used to call them swamps, or a bog or a marsh,” Lamb said by phone from his Hollow Rock, Tenn. home.

The company, Moore & Sons, “used to take out swamps, and get rid of the cottonmouth and rattlers so farmers could use the land,” Lamb said.

Lamb said he was shocked to discover that “a policy from an international treaty signed in Iran in 1971” governed what could be done with wetlands.

“That led me to a chain of events where I found myself executive vice president of an association of contractors,” Lamb said.

In his rounds delivering several $500 checks to congressmen believed to be favorable to private property rights, Lamb discovered that his 5,000- to 6,000-member association “had no political clout.

“I sat down in the lobby of a congressman’s office and beside me was a guy in a blue suit with a $5,000 check from an environmental organization,” Lamb recalled. “I said to myself this is absolutely stupid. Who’s he going to listen to?”

Lamb said he fired his association’s $3,000-a-month lobbyist, “didn’t deliver any more checks and went home.”

That same week Lamb started organizing “a two-day gabfest in Chicago” for like-minded people “to figure out a strategy about wetlands.”

He founded the Environmental Conservation Organization in 1988.

“We are an environmental organization,” Lamb said about a name that could be taken for that of a liberal organization. “We did things like build terraces to stop erosion.”

But his outfit studies at all types of “intrusion,” he said, like “heritage corridors, scenic highways and a whole gamut of techniques used to destroy property rights.”

When Lamb organized the 1988 meeting, “I could count on my fingers the number of property rights organizations.”

Two years later, he identified about 400 affiliated organizations in the U.S.

“Most came into existence at that time, and most were quite small, but people were organizing,” Lamb said.

Now property rights organizations number about 2,000, he estimated. American flags and eagles figure prominently on Web sites for groups like Defenders of Property Rights, Citizens for Property Rights, Property Rights Congress of America, Paragon Foundation, American Land Rights Association, and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

The BlueRibbon Coalition, an umbrella advocacy group that works to keep recreation trails open on public lands, claims to represent more than 6,000 individuals and 550 businesses and organizations with a collective membership of more than 600,000 nationwide.

Gerber, a descendant of a Nevada pioneer ranching family, became active in the property rights movement when, fresh out of law school in 1985, the Nevada Farm Bureau hired him to research the effects of turning grazing land into wilderness areas.

“The promises were that it wouldn’t affect agriculture,” Gerber said. “My research was that, once areas were designated as wilderness, contrary to promises, (ranchers) wouldn’t be grazing cattle there much longer. It’s been proven true.”

“I’ve been an activist ever since,” Gerber said.

Gerber grabbed headlines with his work as attorney for the famed Jarbidge Shovel Brigade in the mid-1990s, where legislators joined citizens in forcibly opening a road the U.S. Forest Service declared closed to recreationalists in northeastern Nevada’s Elko County.

“We got shovels from almost every state,” Gerber said about the effort to open Jarbidge Road. “We got over 10,000 shovels.”

Gerber also was instrumental in forming the Klamath Bucket Brigade, an effort to bring water to farmers after a federal government agency prohibited them from irrigating with Klamath Basin water in order to protect endangered fish in the Oregon-California border area.

Gerber says activists raised more than $300,000 “to help get farmers through the winter.”

“Folks in Ohio also asked for our help,” Gerber said about a fight to keep 500 farms from being condemned and turned into a national wildlife refuge.

“We’ve lost so many times that we’re savoring these partial victories,” Gerber said from his Salt Lake City hotel room, where the coalition’s board was meeting.

(Tuesday: Legal opinions from around the country on the Citizens for Fair & Balanced Land-Use’s proposed initiative, one man’s story about losing his land to a scenic buffer, and the difference between a conspiracy and a “programme.”)

u For a breakdown of land-use groups, see Page 10

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