Nevada ranchers - an often-forgotten population in our state - are getting some help from an unusual ranch hand.
UNLV grad student Leisl Carr Childers' work has taken her to the most remote regions of Nevada to study the frequently contentious relationship between the federal government and ranchers in Nevada.
One big question at the heart of her investigation: Should there be ranching in the Great Basin?
"Ranching is important, but not because it is essential to the region's or the nation's economy," said Childers, the 2009-10 President's Research Graduate Fellow. "Rather, ranchers are the custodians of some of the last open spaces in the country. They live and work in places most of us only drive through, and their presence is essential to maintaining the integrity of the Great Basin environment."
Toll of Federal Programs
Childers is examining the toll that federal programs have taken on the families and livelihoods of ranchers. She started by researching the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and then traced the chronology of events and policies related to federal land and ranching in the Great Basin.
To hear firsthand the issues ranchers face, Childers traveled to Garden, Coal, and Railroad valleys. She supplemented her interviews with an examination of constituent letters in the Howard Cannon Senatorial Papers and went to the Nevada State Archives in Carson City to gather information from the governors' letters.
She is finding that although federal policies were enacted for the greater good, the results have been mixed in terms of economics. The rural populations, meanwhile, have been marginalized and frustrated by the policies.
Nevada ranchers are a great baseline for evaluating federal land policy across the nation, Childers said. The state, and the Great Basin especially, has a vast quantity of public land governed by federal law. "Because Nevada has such a limited state government, you can really see how federal laws impact these ranchers' lives," she said.
From Rodeo to Ranchers
In 2005, Childers came to UNLV to pursue a doctoral degree and work with the late Hal Rothman, an expert on Western history. She had spent nearly 10 years teaching high school history in rural California and Arizona - areas that deepened her interest in rural culture, and horses in particular.
She originally planned to research rodeo culture, but her studies led to working for the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project at UNLV. An interview with one particular rancher affected by the Cold War era nuclear testing offered a glimmer into the issues rural Nevadans have faced.
"He talked about wild horses, nuclear testing, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Atomic Energy Commission all with the same frustration," Childers said. "He ran all these subjects together, and I wanted to know why. I wanted to know what issues he encountered on a daily basis that affected his livelihood. That was the moment my focus changed."
Childers, who will finish her American history doctoral degree program next spring, said she is pursing this particular research on behalf of the ranchers as well as for the leaders in Washington. She hopes the long-term result will be better federal policy for the people living in the often-neglected area. "As a historian, my job is to take data from the past and help make sense of it for use now."