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SITTING ON A BALE OF BARLEY destined for his cattle, Dick Carver gets just a little misty eyed as he recalls the moment that propelled him to leadership of a rebellion now sweeping the West. Usually mild mannered and affable, the Nevada rancher and Nye County commissioner reached a point last year when he had had enough. To him, federal intrusion into the daily life of his county had simply grown too great, so on July 4, 1994--Independence Day--he took the law into his own hands. His weapon of choice: a rusting, yellow D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer.

Carver sat astride the 22-ton machine, his dust-caked face streaked with the paths of recent tears. He remembers being frightened and tense as he guided the Cat toward an armed U.S. Forest Service agent holding a hand-lettered sign ordering Carver to stop. The agent stumbled and wound up briefly crawling on hands and knees. But Carver kept coming. He pulled out a pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution, which he keeps with him always, and waved it defiantly at the agent as a crowd of about 200 people, a quarter of them armed, cheered him forward. "I was damn scared," says Carver. He was afraid someone--maybe the agent, maybe an overzealous spectator--would draw a gun and trigger a cascade of violence. "I told myself, 'Dick, you've got to keep going. Because if you stop, the people are going to do something, and someone's going to get hurt.'"

Carver had climbed aboard the Caterpillar to bulldoze open a weather-damaged road across a national forest. The hitch was, he wanted to do so without federal permission. Although plainly illegal, in Carver's mind it was an act of civil disobedience--a frontier Boston Tea Party--warranted by the tyranny he and his fellow citizens in Nye had long endured. But in this case, the purported tyrant was the U.S. government.

The incident immediately made Carver a leading voice in the so-called county-supremacy movement now gaining momentum throughout the West. It also triggered a major federal lawsuit seeking to assert once and for all the government's ownership of federal lands in Nye County and, by legal inference, its possession of public lands that cover one-third of the nation's ground. The Justice Department estimates that at least 35 counties, primarily in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California, have declared authority over federal lands within their boundaries. Other estimates put the number far higher. The National Federal Lands Conference, a Utah organization devoted to fostering resistance, believes more than 300 counties have claimed some degree of sovereignty over federal lands, and many more have considered the idea, including counties in states as far east as Maine and Florida.

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