A Prius driver pulled up next to the horse trailer parked on Maryland Avenue midday Thursday, a block southwest of the Capitol, and asked Nevada ranch hand George Martin what issue brought him to Washington.
"Regulation without representation," responded Martin, 69, who was keeping a watchful eye on a dozen horses and three of his great-granddaughters, while the rest of the crew that rode with him for nearly 2,800 miles paid a visit to the Hill. Capitol Police rules ban the Grass March Cowboy Express from saddling up on Capitol grounds, so the two horse trailers and a chuck wagon stayed parked outside the National Museum of the American Indian.
The Prius driver told Martin he "got that," presumably from the battered banners duct-taped to the side of the trailer that explained the coast-to-coast relay horseback ride to protest tyranny. What he really wanted to know from Marin was, "What does that mean?"
Sparked by a conflict over grazing rights in central Nevada, the caravan originally rode from Elko to Carson City to get the attention of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. The ranchers reject the Bureau of Land Management's drought-inspired restrictions on grazing, and want the man in charge of the Battle Mountain field office in central Nevada removed.
On Sept. 26, they started a second ride from Bodega Bay, Calif., to deliver petitions to Western lawmakers on Capitol Hill about land and environmental issues. They've found at least one ally in Congress: Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei. He hasn't gone so far as to call for anyone's ouster, but he did write a letter to BLM Director Neil Kornze questioning some of the state-level management practices.
Martin told the Prius driver that federal agencies, including the BLM, "make rules but they’re not elected ... They can make a rule that has to be followed, and there’s no representation for that.”
“I respectfully disagree,” the driver said, before pulling away.
Along the course of the ride, the cowboy crew has run into opposition from environmental advocates who say the BLM was more than justified in removing cattle from drought-stricken lands. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility called them "drought deniers," pointing out that nearly 90 percent of Nevada has been under “severe to exceptional” drought for three consecutive years.
Amodei said in his letter that bordering districts in California, Oregon, Utah and Idaho — states where the federal government owns far less land — do not get similar treatment from BLM on grazing in the context of drought conditions. He was meeting with BLM officials this week to talk about those issues.
At the D.C. stop, the cowboys encountered some hostility in their urban surroundings. There was a clash with animal rights advocates on the street. One rider, Joshua White, jokingly complained that there weren't many trails for his horse, Soda, to ride when they entered Georgetown shortly after 5 a.m. He also said got a few raised eyebrows for his wide-brimmed hats and thick red suspenders.
"I need to buy one of those suit coats," White murmured during a lunch on the West Lawn. White thinks there's "an agenda" to wipe out cattle, and got involved because he wants his two sons to have a future in ranching. "I really want this for my children. Cowboys are dying. It's going away."
About a dozen congressional staffers milled around eating barbecue sandwiches and slaw off disposable plates, listening to the ranchers talk about their problem. Organizers said the House Natural Resources Committee and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, were among the congressional offices that paid the Grass March some attention during their visit.
Organizer Katie Jones told CQ Roll Call the group didn't get any promises during their brief visit to Capitol Hill, but "we have gained ground."
After a few hours in D.C., the Grass March Cowboy Express rode on. They pinpointed Annapolis, Md., for the final stop in their long trek. The cowboys wanted to end near water, just like they began.