Following silly spat, docents return to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park

Twenty months after state officials with the State Parks Division ousted volunteer docents at the Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, the state is welcoming them back to settle a court case.

Starting Dec. 1, the docents will be back, doing what they do best, interpreting the rich history of the ranch house to make it come alive for visitors and raising money for the presumably cash-strapped state park, 15 miles outside Las Vegas.

Of course, the nonprofit Spring Mountain Ranch Docents had to sue first.

The state fought the case, even took it to the Nevada Supreme Court, using taxpayer dollars to do something ridiculous: Keep docents at the Spring Mountain Ranch State Park from volunteering their time and efforts.

Some history of this silly situation is in order. Now-retired state parks administrator David Morrow, saying the docents had injected themselves into park personnel issues, terminated their contract April 6, 2012. He offered various reasons, but both sides say there were personality disputes and a level of distrust between state park officials and the docents.

After a relationship of 38 years, the state ousted the Spring Mountain Ranch Docents and replaced them with about 46 state-approved volunteers. Some were former docents.

The docents sued for breach of contract, referring to a contract the state sought in 2009.

On Tuesday, just as the jury trial was to start, the case settled. The docents will return to the park for the next five years, the same time the contract period would have ended.

Las Vegas attorney Joseph Hong said he was “extremely pleased and happy.”

Eric Johnson, administrator of the State Parks Division said carefully and hesitantly, “We will make it work.” Later he added, “I think an agreement was reached that won’t negatively impact the public.”

Noelle Lee, president of the docents, said the docents’ group has dissipated, but she would do her best to revive it. “We’re going to inject it with life and build it up again.”

Docents would tell visitors about the history of the 1880s ranch house, including those times when it was owned by Howard Hughes and German actress Vera Krupp of Krupp diamond fame. She was at the ranch when three men broke in and tore the diamond from her finger. Later recovered, it’s now known as the Elizabeth Taylor diamond.

The ranch house offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of Southern Nevada, and the park is perfect for picnics, re-enactments, summer theater shows and special events. It’s well-worth a visit.

I’ve seen various volunteer groups get the ax in power plays by bureaucrats, primarily over control of how the money the volunteers raised should be spent. Bureaucrats want to control nonprofits.

But this is the first volunteer group I’ve seen recently challenge authority and win. Lee said if Hong, who worked for free on this case, hadn’t stuck with the group, they wouldn’t have been able to fight the state. “We give Joe every thanks that we can because he stayed with us.”

He committed to the fight after a friend who is a docent asked him to help.

He never realized how long the case would run, or how intensely state officials would fight it or how much time it would take, but he felt it was important for the community as well as the docents.

However, the state had unlimited taxpayer money to fight this case and seemed willing to use it to delay litigation. Until it looked like a jury might question the state’s motivation.

If the trial had started as planned Tuesday, Hong said, “We were going to talk about the 38 years of the docents’ dedicated services — the living, cultural, historic and interpretive history they’ve upheld for that park.” Docents volunteered every day but Christmas.

The park’s website said that the ranch house is now open for self-guided tours and that volunteers are available to answer questions.

Not quite the same. The website also says — surprise, surprise — the state needs park volunteers.

There’s a silliness and a sadness about this case and others where volunteers are disrespected and forced out over who controls the money.

Let the fighting end. It’s time to make peace and work for the real losers in this conflict — the people who use Spring Mountain Ranch State Park.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at (702) 383-0275.