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West's long, hot summer flares up over land use

From Nevada to Oregon, locals battle the federal government on environment.

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The rural West is feeling the heat this summer - and not just from seasonal wildfires sending smoke to redden the sunsets. Conflicting values are the tinder. Politics is the spark.

Across the country, local and state agencies are butting heads with federal agents over property rights. But the clashes are particularly acute in Western states like Nevada, where Uncle Sam controls 87 percent of the land.

Some of this is due to the Bush administration's new approach to environmental protection and the degree to which natural resources should be exploited, favored by traditional industries, and opposed by many environmentalists. Both sides have ratcheted up actions in recent days.

But there also are underlying and longstanding issues of personal freedom versus government control, newly simmering with support from militias and other antigovernment groups.

In several important cases, local officials have sided against federal agencies trying to enforce laws meant to protect national forests, grazing lands, and wildlife refuges, raising the prospect of conflict between levels of government not seen since the "sagebrush rebellion" first erupted in the 1970s.

The depth of feeling was exhibited recently when Lt. Jack Redfield, a 39-year veteran of the Klamath Falls, Ore., police department, exchanged his uniform cap for a white cowboy hat. He told a crowd of farmers and ranchers protesting federal water restrictions imposed to protect several species of endangered fish that environmentalists are "economic terrorists."

Lieutenant Redfield, who was suspended by city officials, warned that "extremists and out-of-control federal agents" could precipitate "an extremely violent response." Nearby, federal agents guarded an irrigation headgate that farmers had illegally broken open earlier in the summer.

Not far away in Nevada this week, a district judge prevented the federal Bureau of Land Management from auctioning off some of the cattle seized from local ranchers. The BLM confiscated the cattle in order to cover grazing fees and fines that ranchers on federal land have refused to pay in recent years. Local sheriffs, siding with the ranchers, initially tried to block the seizures, but backed down when the US attorney weighed in.

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