Bureaucrats, volunteers at odds over Spring Mountain Ranch

District Judge Douglas Herndon handed the Spring Mountain Ranch State Park docents a victory over state bureaucrats Wednesday. The docents can go back to work at the ranch while a civil lawsuit moves through the legal system.

Herndon decided there would be irreparable harm to let the state of Nevada kick out the docents, who have volunteered at the ranch for 38 years, providing historical perspective and tours to visitors and tourists.

The judge agreed with the docents’ attorney, Joseph Hong, who said the docents have the right to continue their volunteer services at the ranch. The judge also said he believes the volunteers are likely to prevail on the merits of the case.

Lest you think the public hasn’t been hurt, you have.

The ranch house is now closed Mondays and Tuesdays, and tours are sometimes less frequent. The docents covered the ranch house with tours every day but Christmas. They affectionately told the history of the ranch house, which dates to the 1800s, and the colorful owners including Howard Hughes and actress Vera Krupp.

David Morrow, administrator of the Division of State Parks, terminated the contract with the group April 6, saying the docents injected themselves into park personnel issues. Two other reasons he cited are that docents don’t undergo background checks, and it costs about $3,000 a year to cover workers’ comp insurance for docents. The docents contend those reasons are “fabricated.”

Morrow ousted the 86 docents and brought in 27 state-approved volunteers operating under the state’s Volunteers in Parks Program. Obviously, that’s not enough to cover Mondays and Tuesdays.

In 2009, the state insisted it needed a formal contract with the docents. Officials may now regret that move because the breach of contract case wouldn’t exist except for that 10-year contract.

Herndon granted a preliminary injunction after saying there would be irreparable harm to the docents.

It’s not a loss of money. They don’t get paid. (Actually, they raise money for park needs the state won’t fund.)

It’s not the loss of history available to the people of Nevada. The contract doesn’t cover harm to the public.

Herndon decided there is a loss to the individual docents. “There is great value in being able to volunteer.”

He described the emotional value, the mental health benefits and the well-being that accompany volunteer work.

With that, he agreed there would be an irreparable loss to them and granted the motion forcing state officials to let them go back to volunteering at the Spring Mountain Ranch.

Before the hearing, the docents said they didn’t have the money to continue paying the costs of the lawsuit, but Hong said afterward, “I am going to make it work.”

With the judge already saying he believes the docents will prevail and ordering the state to take them back as volunteers, it doesn’t look like a strong case for the state.

But remember, to defend this case, the state has unlimited money to spend. Docents don’t.

Deputy Attorney General Kristen Geddes said she would have to consult others to decide what the next step is. But there are only three choices: Appeal. Go to trial. Or agree to let the docents back in permanently, at least until 2019 when the contract expires.

At a time when volunteers are needed for everything, when government can’t provide for needs, volunteers of all kinds deserve to be treasured not disparaged.

Even if there is a power play, and even if there are personality conflicts – and a trial is likely to bring those into the public eye – the state seems to be rejecting volunteers who want to preserve history for the public.

That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Gov. Brian Sandoval, who genuinely relishes Nevada history, would want as part of his legacy.

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

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