Forget the landowner — save the fish!

A former colleague was quick to warn that once federal bureaucrats decide a particular bug, weed, pest or plot of land is in need of protection from the taxpaying public, they’ll stop at nothing to save it. Even if it destroys what they’re trying to preserve. Even if it takes every last dime of your money.

Now Victor and Annette Fuentes know as much.

The leaders of the Ministerio Roca Solida put years of work into their church camp west of Pahrump, within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, only to see it all but wiped out by flooding. They say the flood never would have happened if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weren’t so busy diverting streams and altering the landscape to fulfill its vision of what the area might have looked like many decades ago, before the area served productive purposes including mining, farming and ranching.

The Fuenteses have enlisted the help of the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation to help them recover damages. It’s the second case for the new center, which aims to protect the rights and liberties of individuals from government overreach. Their action has a compelling narrative.

Victor Fuentes escaped Cuba in 1991 by swimming to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. He was granted asylum.

While serving a prison sentence for a drug conviction, he found salvation in religion. Upon his release, he became a Christian minister, made his way to Las Vegas and established his church in 2004.

He and his wife purchased their church camp in 2006 for a little more than $500,000, then spent an additional $700,000 upgrading the facilities. It became known as the Patch of Heaven, and by 2010 it was booked full of church groups and campers almost every weekend. Steams that ran through the property were used for baptisms. Donations kept the camp operating.

Being surrounded by federal land could have been a blessing. Instead, by the Fuenteses’ account, the Fish and Wildlife Service was the neighbor from hell.

The Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1984. It currently includes about 23,000 acres of federal land and 400 acres of private property, the Patch of Heaven among them. The refuge was created for one reason: to protect four species of fish, seven species of plants and one aquatic insect no one gives a rat’s fanny about.

Fish and Wildlife officials, working with "stakeholders" — code for the academics, federal scientists and environmentalists who don’t own land but demand a role in deciding how it’s used — completed a massive, make-work restoration plan for the area after the Fuenteses bought their land. Although streams have a funny way of creating their own paths over the years, with and without our help, the recovery experts decided they knew where the water really belonged — not on the Patch of Heaven.

They were particularly concerned about the Ash Meadows speckled dace, which we’re assured is far, far different from the dozens of other subspecies of speckled dace and dace across Nevada. It lives in two spring systems within the refuge, but officials had deemed those springs unsuitable habitat. To truly save the fish, they needed to build a new channel that enables water to flow much faster than it does across the Patch of Heaven.

So the Fish and Wildlife Service constructed new stream banks 700 feet east of the church camp. The speckled dace would be caught and moved there. The babbling brooks that ran through the camp were diverted, and when they dried up, so did the Patch of Heaven’s bookings and donations.

On Dec. 23, 2010, less than one month after the spring diversion project was finished, the first heavy rain flooded the area and sent a wall of mud across the camp.

So much for guaranteeing the survival of the speckled dace. The last thing any creature wants to hear: "We’re from the government, and we’re here to help." Fishy, we hardly knew ye.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says the Patch of Heaven was prone to flooding before the stream was diverted. The Fuenteses disagree. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say they had warned the Fuenteses for years that their land could flood and that they could lose their water. The Fuenteses say those warnings were little more than veiled threats.

As proof that the federal government is a tangle of double-standards, the Fuenteses can’t even take their case to court yet. Joe Becker, director and chief legal officer of NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, says federal tort protocols dictate that his clients first submit a claim for damages on a simple form through the mail. They’ll have to wait up to six months before they know whether the Fish and Wildlife Service will cover the $85,000 in damages caused by the flood, or, more likely, whether they’ll be told to go pound sand.

Victor Fuentes’ complaint that his experience with the Fish and Wildlife Service reminds him of Fidel Castro’s oppressive Cuban regime isn’t a stretch when you consider that an environmentalist group in San Francisco has more power over the use and value of his property than he does. As a matter of policy, the U.S. government has decided that preserving an utterly unremarkable fish (by moving it into an area supposedly prone to flooding) is more important than a private landowner’s rights, including the exercise of religious freedom.

To really put the case into perspective, turn the details upside down. Imagine if the Fuenteses did not want streams running through their property, and they wanted them diverted. Imagine if they brought out backhoes and tried to create a new channel or a dam to keep the water out. They’d probably be arrested and fined for imperiling that endangered aquatic insect, whatever it’s called.

The odds of winning this action are against the Fuenteses. The odds that the species being "protected" by the Fish and Wildlife Service survive this recovery plan? Even worse.

One thing is guaranteed: the Fish and Wildlife Service won’t give up — even if it takes every last dime of your money.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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