Roca Solida Church versus the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department

Victor Fuentes probably didn’t specifically have the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment–“No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”–in mind, as he swam seven miles from his home in Santiago, Cuba to Guantanamo Bay to gain political asylum in 1991.

He was simply convinced he must risk life and limb to escape Castro’s government oppression for the freedom offered by the United States.  But, by now, he’s learned the USofA. is not as free as he believed. For the past few years, Pastor Fuentes and his church, Ministerio Roca Solida Church (Solid Rock Church), has been locked in a battle with the federal government over the church’s 40 acres located in Nevada’s Amargosa Valley, northwest of Las Vegas.

In 2006, the ministry bought the land for a youth retreat and to do traditional baptisms, as the property has included a spring-fed stream, known as the Carson Slough, since at least the 1880s. The land is surrounded by a federally managed wildlife refuge.

The feds have always had their eye on the property and in 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department illegally rerouted the stream to a higher elevation entirely outside of Roca Solida’s property. Three weeks later, “the stream overflowed the federal agency’s poorly engineered new banks during rain showers — sending destructive floods of mud and muddy waters through the camp,” explains the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) website, damaging the church’s facilities.

The Fish and Wildlife has been hiding behind an endangered minnow, the speckled dace, as its reason to reroute the stream. However, the dace never had a chance after the government’s diversion. As Thomas Mitchell explains, the rains “presumably washing away the dace as well. Flooding occurred again in 2015 and twice this year, extensively damaging buildings and creating massive gullies.”

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The church made a statutorily mandated claim with the Department of the Interior but, of course, received no response. Pastor Fuentes and his wife, not having the resources to fight the federal government, sought the help of the NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation headed by Joe Becker.

Becker served as Chief Legal Counsel and Policy Director for the Ron Paul 2008 Presidential Campaign Committee. In addition to a Juris Doctorate, Becker earned a master in economics at UNLV while studying under Murray Rothbard and Hans Hoppe. NPRI’s Center for Justice advisory board is chaired by Mises Institute supporter and labor law expert Deanna Forbush. Lawyer Lee Iglody, who also studied under Rothbard and Hoppe, serves on the board as well.

Suing the government is never easy, and as a Cato Legal Brief explains, “Courtesy of Congress, Roca Solida was forced to split its claims between two different courts: district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over tort claims against the government, while the Court of Federal Claims has exclusive jurisdiction over monetary claims in excess of $10,000.”

The suits seek restoration of the Church’s water rights and restitution from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for negligent and lawless actions by the agency that caused damage to the church’s camp, known as Patch of Heaven.

Faith and Becker’s fine work has produced some good news. On November 4th the Nevada Division of Water Resources, arbiter of water rights in Nevada, ordered the Fish and Wildlife to return the stream to its original banks traversing the church retreat property within 90 days, or face $10,000 per day in fines, having to replace up to 200% of the water diverted, and payment of attorney’s fees and investigative costs.

The water agency’s “Warning Notice” says the state engineer has determined Fish and Wildlife has impaired Roca Solida’s rightful use of its water, that Fish and Wildlife’s use of the water is a misdemeanor, and the State Engineer has the right to remove the federal agency’s dam, diversion, or obstruction.

The state’s warning says Fish and Wildlife’s contention that it was reestablishing a historic natural drainage course is flat wrong and the Carson Slough has always traversed the church’s land. Also, the church has evidence to prove it owns the water rights dating back to 1887.

Meanwhile, NPRI’s court case is pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. “Getting the water returned would be a major first step in making the Ministry whole, after years of suffering litigation and egregious constitutional violations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Becker told Thomas Mitchell. “However, the Ministry still suffered significant harm in the interim from the federal government’s actions — including repeated flooding and five years of flood damage resulting from the illegal water diversion project.”

Becker explains, “A mini-grand-canyon now cuts through what was once lush wetlands, and the significant improvements made to structures and the land for the benefit of young campers are being undone with each recurring flood.” And because of that, Roca Solida is seeking $3 million or complete restoration of the property to its original status.

The federal government owns 84.9% of Nevada’s land, and over 10 million acres in Nye County alone, where the Roca Solida Church property is located. But the greedy federal government can’t leave the tiny 40 acre Patch of Heaven parcel alone.  Mr. Becker learned liberty from the masters. Let’s hope he can bring justice to Pastor Fuentes, who risked so much to come to the land of the free.