Ironic Antipathy: The Relationship Between Gerlach Locals and the BLM
That's not a rational reaction, of course. I'd probably say the same thing if the same land was owned by a holding company based in Los Angeles or a ranching outfit from Arizona. I'm always looking for a reason to bitch. But reactions generally aren't rational. It's not rational for city people to distrust police officers tasked with protecting them from... well, other city people. But many of them do. It's the basic American disposition to distrust authority. In fact, it could be argued that the only reasonable attitude to have toward authority is a mixture of cynicism and curiosity. Any other reaction smacks of naivete, and even a lack of civic responsibility.
Those of us who live out here approach the doings (or, more often, alleged doings) of the BLM with a mixture of dread and morbid fascination. What areas are being closed off to quads this year? Where are they letting that coal power plant be built? Which cabins did they tear down, again? Often the things we imagine the Bureau of Land Management is planning to do are more frightening than anything it actually ends up doing, but the psychological effects are the same: fear, dread, and a certain sense of melancholy. But when you consider that it owns 87 percent of our state, a bit of paranoia doesn't seem unwarranted.
Few of us locals view the National Conservation Area - the act of Congress which the BLM and its subsidiary organization the Friends of the Black Rock are sword to help implement - as anything other than meddlesome and baffling. But to be perfectly honest, we're not big picture thinkers. We just want to be left alone to live our little lives. Why do people in Los Angeles, Reno, and San Francisco care where we drive our quads or hunt deer? Why do they care where and how we camp, or what hot springs we use? It's not like they come out here except for Burning Man, anyhow. It's really no different than a San Franciscan wondering why people in Texas might object to the city legalizing gay marriage. What business is it of theirs, anyhow?
But life is seldom simple, and people are eternally meddlesome. Which, in a democracy, means that the government is eternally meddlesome. Hence the BLM and the NCA. It wasn't always this way. The two component organizations from which the BLM was formed – the Grazing Service and General Land Office – were probably the best friends rural westerners ever had. Even after the creation of the BLM 1946, its duties mostly consisted of managing grazing, water, and mining easements for people like us. But in 1976 (re: Carter Administration) Congress decided that these lands would remain in “public ownership” in perpetuum to “meet the present and future needs of the American people.” The Bureau was given the mandate of eternally managing these lands and any resources they contained.
In other words, the BLM administers the greatest non-military land grab in human history.
I don't mean to make the Bureau of Land Management out to be some kind of ogre. It does many fine things that we Gerlach types appreciate. It puts out fires and controls the mustang population. (Not that the locals didn't do a better job of that before it took over, but that's a whole other post.) It reintroduced big horn sheep into Nevada and works to protect other legitimately endangered desert species. Overall, it's mostly a neutral, understaffed organization charged with managing millions of acres of barren land according to the shifting policies of whatever barely-interested administration is in power on the other side of a continent. As part of its mandate the BLM has to listen to all sorts of cranks from all sides of the spectrum complain about every action it takes... or doesn't take. At least from the outside, it seems like a pretty thankless job.
Which brings us back to Gerlach, where we aren't particularly thankful. We're a cantankerous, individualistic, reclusive bunch, happy to ignore the rest of the world and be ignored by it in return. For better or worse the NCA has put an end to that. It's a little like being a tenant farmer whose absentee landlord hasn't come around for a century. When he finally shows up and starts making rules, it's only natural to respond with ambivalence, whether his rules are fair or not. It just doesn't feel right
Of course, the irony of this ambivalence is that we locals and the BLM need one another. Without us rustics there would be no one to clean hotel rooms, pump gas, serve beer, fix cars, repair roads, and perform the many other minor tasks that make 99% of tourists feel comfortable enough to come to a National Conservation Area. Without those crucial tourists, the billions of dollars allocated to the BLM each year would end up as a “bridge to nowhere” piece on the O'Reilly Factor. Without the BLM, the Black Rock Desert would probably be a massive strip mine punctuated with coal power plants.
Well, that and high paying union jobs with benefits. But that too is another post.