Zane Johnston gestures toward the .38-caliber pistol he carries in a worn leather holster on his hip and says, "The Bureau of Rec thinks I carry this for them. But I don't. I carry it for varmints."
In Johnston's book, a varmint is only a small notch above the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Johnston and the bureau are locked in a bitter battle over property on the north shore of Lake Pleasant. The bureau recently completed New Waddell Dam, which will triple the size of the lake located 35 miles northwest of Phoenix.
The bureau says Johnston and his wife, Donna, must leave their property because it will be flooded by the rising lake. Johnston, who looks much younger than his 60 years, says that's baloney. The ex-Marine and part-time construction worker claims the water at the highest level will leave his homestead high and dry while inundating the lower half of his property.
"The chances of me getting hit in the head with a meteorite are greater than me ever getting washed out," Johnston says during a tour of his 26-acre homestead, which is located where Humbug Creek dumps into the reservoir.
Johnston has rejected several bureau offers to buy his land, saying the agency's price, now at $220,000, was too low. Furthermore, Johnston says, he would rather stay on the land where he was raised than take the federal money. To compensate for about 15 acres of his land that will be flooded, Johnston says he is willing to accept adjacent federal land.
"If Uncle Sam needs my property, fine and dandy. But it would be cheaper for them to exchange some federal land for mine. Instead, they would rather give you a few dollars, and cheat you even out of that," he says.
Chuck Moorfoot, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman in Phoenix, says the government wants the Johnstons out of the area because they will pose a risk to the safe operation of the huge reservoir. "We don't want to be dependent on the whims of an individual when it comes to operating a federal reservoir," Moorfoot says.
Johnston's 26-acre parcel has sentimental value. It is part of a 160-acre homestead his father purchased in the early Forties. Johnston was raised on the land.
In the Fifties, Johnston's family sold the homestead and moved away. Over time, the new owner sold various sized chunks of it. Johnston returned to the north shore in 1987, renting a house on his father's original homestead. He also acquired 20 nearby acres, which he subsequently sold to the bureau three years ago. He used proceeds from that sale to turn around and buy 26 acres of his father's original homestead.
His purchase of the 26 acres has become a bone of contention with the bureau, which believes Johnston is trying to take advantage of the federal government, Moorfoot says. Johnston bought his present 26-acre property knowing the government planned to condemn it, Moorfoot says.
"We bought him out two years ago and he bought back in knowing we had to buy him out again," Moorfoot says. "He's making money."
Johnston says he purchased the property because the former owners of the 26 acres were in financial distress and he wanted to live on the land where he was raised. A 1989 letter from the former owner asking for the bureau to immediately purchase the land because the family faced financial hardship was ignored by the bureau.
Before Johnston purchased the 26-acre property, he asked bureau officials whether the land would be flooded by the lake. He claims a bureau official told him it would not. Johnston also surveyed the area and determined that the elevation of his house would be 14 feet above the high-water mark of the lake, a calculation the bureau later confirmed.
Finally, Johnston learned that a county road is to be built across the lower portion of his property. Moorfoot said last Friday that the road would be above the high-level water mark at the lake.
"I don't see why I can't stay on this side of the road," Johnston says.
The Johnston compound consists of a couple of wood-frame houses, circa 1930, a 25-foot travel trailer and an odd, steel-frame building Johnston was assembling at the back of his property. While it's not the Ritz, it has been a comfortable homestead for the couple for six years, he says.
The Johnstons were ordered to leave the property by assistant U.S. attorney Sue Klein by mid-November. "I do not want to have to ask the marshals to remove you from the property," she wrote in an October 16 letter.
Johnston doesn't seem worried about the impending showdown, given the fact that the government didn't even know he and his neighbors, the Kents, lived on the site when the bureau conducted a massive environmental-impact study in the early 1980s.
It's hard to fathom how the Johnston and Kent homesteads were overlooked by government planners. Each family had a number of structures built on their 20-plus-acre parcels.
The home sites are obvious, especially from the air, where the Kents' 1,800-foot lighted dirt runway is the only flat ground for miles around. The runway served as the Kents' private airport, allowing Everett and his wife, Evelyn, to cut the 90-minute drive to Phoenix to a ten-minute flight.
But federal planners studying everything from rare minnows to historic ruins completely missed the fact that warm-blooded humans would have to be moved at Lake Pleasant. The same planners who completed the Lake Pleasant paperwork were more careful at Lake Roosevelt, which is also being expanded to store more water. In the Roosevelt study, they wrote at length about the problems the bureau faced in having to move residents, especially elderly people, from their homes. At Roosevelt, the bureau had relocated four families to federal land near the lake.
The Lake Pleasant oversight could prove costly if a federal judge agrees with a motion filed by the Johnstons' lawyer in U.S. District Court. The motion seeks an emergency injunction to halt the expansion of Lake Pleasant until a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is completed.
A supplemental statement would correct the original EIS, completed in 1984, which said no persons would have to be moved from the Lake Pleasant area.
The lake is a vital cog in the Central Arizona Project. Water from the CAP canal, which diverts Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, is scheduled to begin flowing into Lake Pleasant in early November. The water is to be stored in Lake Pleasant over the winter, then released in the summer during high demand by cities and farms.
While the Johnstons have stayed on, hoping to remain in their home, the Kents moved to Texas earlier this month. The lake has risen drastically in the past few months because of heavy rain and the higher dam. By the end of November, their homestead will be under water--along with thousands of saguaro cacti.
Evelyn Kent says dealing with the bureau was a nightmare.
"They gave us the runaround on everything. We felt they were trying to frighten us enough so that we would cave in," she says.
Like the Johnstons, she and her husband are fighting the bureau in federal court.
"There has not been any time when they were actually treating us in a way where we felt like people," Evelyn Kent says. "Frankly, we felt like a bunch of rats they wanted to shove out."
She says the bureau offered $136,100 for their property, which included 25 acres, a modular home, workshop, aircraft hangar and the lighted runway. A year later, the offer increased to $210,000, but came with the provision that if they rejected this offer and went to court, the bureau would lower the offer back to $136,100.
"We felt like it was just plain old blackmail," she says.
After the Kents hired an attorney, the bureau's offer jumped to $300,000.
The Kents moved to the property 21 years ago to escape the city environment, which was damaging Evelyn's health. First they built the runway, then added the home. Everett flew their Cessna 172 to Glendale each day to work as an electrical contractor.
"We love it out there," she says. "We had everything we wanted. We had it all set up."
The bureau showed the Kents several possible relocation sites, but none was suitable. In one instance, Evelyn says the bureau asked them to consider taking in compensation a nearby house that had been taken over by bats.
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Moorfoot declined to comment specifically on the Kents' and Johnstons' complaints because the cases are being litigated. He did say, however, that the agency had done its job.
"Despite all the good and great things we have done for these folks, we shouldn't discuss it until the court case is complete," he says.
The Johnstons and Kents have hired Phoenix condemnation attorney Tom Irvine to represent them. Irvine says he's never seen a situation where a government agency has been so callous.
"They [the bureau] have gone totally berserk," Irvine says. "The government is doing everything backwards.