Archive/File: orgs/american/new.mexico catron.001 Last-Modified: 1995/01/11 Reprinted from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, Tuesday, January 3, 1995. The Wall Street Journal, 200 Liberty St., New York, NY, 10281, 212-416-2000. Subscription rate: $164.00/yr., 1-800-JOURNAL. Cattle Prod Catron County, N.M., Leads a Nasty Revolt Over Eco-Protection U.S. Agency's Plan to Trim Grazing Rights Sparks Laws-and Lawlessness An End to Cowboy Welfare? By CHARLES MCCOY Staff Reporter of THE: WALL STREET JOURNAL CATRON COUNTY, N.M.-Last spring, federal wildlife biologist Tim Tibbitts sat in his car after a meeting with local ranchers to outline how protections for endangered species could curtail cattle grazing on federal land here. One rancher popped open the passenger door. Mr. Tibbitts vividly recalls him saying: "If you ever come down to Catron County again, we'll blow your fucking head off." Federal law-enforcement agents are still looking for the rancher, whom, in the darkness, Mr. Tibbitts didn't recognize. But the rhetoric of rebellion just grows louder here in the mesa and mountain country along the Gila River near the Continental Divide. And it is echoing throughout rural America. War Cries At issue here are attempts by federal land managers to curb decades of what they say are environmentally damaging cattle grazing and other practices on the public lands that make up 80% of the county's 7,000 square miles. In revolt, the citizens of Catron County have paraded out a number of novel - and detractors say ludicrous - weapons: a slew of ordinances aimed at superseding federal law, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. But death threats and guns have also played a role. The guiding principle of this revolt: The federal government stole the lands it owns in New Mexico more than a century ago; thus, people here need not heed modern-day federal laws regulating their use. So it is that in Catron County, local ordinances have been passed that make it illegal for the Forest Service to regulate grazing, even on Forest Service lands in the heart of the federally owned Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas that straddle the county. The county sheriff has threatened to arrest the head of the local Forest Service office, prompting the U.S. attorney to threaten to arrest the sheriff. Other Catron County ordinances seek to prohibit the federal government from enforcing a host of laws aimed at sparing the Gila River area from what Sally Stefferud a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, describes as "imminent environmental collapse." For emphasis, Catron County passed a measure requiring heads of households to own firearms to "protect citizens' rights." By way of warning, the county passed a resolution predicting "much physical violence" if the government persists with its "arrogant" grazing reform plans. Spreading Rebellion Many mainstream legal scholars say Catron County is on shaky legal ground with much of this. Nonetheless, the movement born here - now known officially as the "county movement" - has tapped into a deep well of discontent in the West and other rural regions, where mainstays of rural culture like ranching, mining and logging are colliding with demographic shifts and increased environmental protection. In the past two years, more than 100 counties in Western states have passed ordinances, mimicking Catron County's, that repudiate federal control of public lands. In Nevada, 16 of the state's 17 counties have passed county-movement ordinances. The movement has spread eastward in recent months, picking up counties in Michigan and North Carolina. Federal agencies early on dismissed Catron County's campaign, but they don't anymore. "Do not underestimate these people," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt warned a crowd of environmentalists at the Sierra Club's annual awards dinner in San Francisco several months ago. "They are out to divest the public of its lands." Deep Roots The West has seen many antigovernment movements in the past - and Catron County has often been in the vanguard. In the 1890s, people here torched tens of thousands of acres to protest the government's original plan to set aside national forests. But historians think the county movement runs deeper than similar revolts of the past. It overlaps with the so-called Wise Use movement, a well funded campaign backed by big timber, mining, oil and ranching concerns to roll back environmental restrictions. Yet it may have broader appeal, because it casts its cause as the defense of individual liberty and property rights against an overweening federal government - an increasingly popular theme, as recent elections have shown. "For many traditional Westerners, there is a feeling that this is the last stand for their way of life, and that generates a new level of desperation," says Patricia Nelson Limerick, a historian at the Univer- sity of Colorado. That feeling is strong in Catron County. Bigger than Connecticut, the county has been cattle country since the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. Cows still outnumber people about eight to one. But like the entire West, Catron County and environs have been changing. In Silver City, bistros and art galleries have moved [Please Turn to Page 4, Column 1 Cattle Prod: Eco-Protection Plan Sparks a Revolt in New Mexico Continued From First Page into offices vacated by mining suppliers. Newly arrived "green" groups have filed numerous lawsuits and endangered-species actions, leading to federal protection for the Mexican spotted owl and the willow flycatcher, among other creatures. Herd Choices The change that has really got Catron County stirred up is in the Forest Service's approach to its grazing operations. The service has always allowed grazing on public lands, even in wilderness areas, at dirt-cheap fees. A few years ago, under pressure from environmentalists, federal range managers began to acknowledge that a century of heavy grazing had worn much public rangeland in the West to the nub, causing severe environmental damage, especially along streams and rivers. In late 1993, the Forest Service proposed cutting the herds on public land in Catron County by about 30%. To ranchers, these are all changes to fear and to fight. At a "Protect Your Rights Rally" in Silver City, between the barbecue and the cold beer, anger pours forth. "Our way of life is under attack by ecoNazis," rails Zeno Kiehne, a fourth-generation Catron County rancher. Nearby, rancher Betty Hyatt nods approvingly as a state game commissioner gives a speech suggesting "ignoring" the Endangered Species Act. "All we want is for our children to be able to live and work out here the way we always have," Ms. Hyatt says. It is to that end that local leaders launched Catron County's crusade. James Catron, county attorney and a descendant of the pioneer ranching family that gave the county its name, says the movement in part reflects a nostalgia for a time "when someone causing pain to the community was simply shot." Some of the legal concepts underpinning Catron County's crusade similarly look back in time. Trick or Treaty? One is the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War in 1848 and granted territory from California to the Texas border to the U.S. Mr. Catron argues that the treaty gave the residents of what would become New Mexico the right to graze cattle, free from interference by any federal agency. Another of the county's arguments holds that ranchers have been grazing cattle so long on the federally owned lands here that they in effect own the grazing rights themselves. Another holds that the federal government simply doesn't have a right to own any land. "Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the federal government can own real estate," Mr. Catron observes. Then there are the ordinances. The latest proposed one, which county commissioners have yet to vote on, would require environmentalists to register with the county. Under the measure, practicing environmentalism without a license could theoretically result in arrest. The county also has drawn up its own land-use plan, which it says can't be contravened by federal land managers. lt. calls for few restrictions on grazing and other such activities. The only time to date that a county-movement ordinance was actually tested directly, in a case in Idaho state court early last year, it was thrown out as unconstitutional. Nonetheless, the movement has rung up successes. Last month, a federal judge in Albuquerque revoked the Fish and Wildlife Service's designation of critical habitat for two tiny fish in the Gila River as a result of a Catron County lawsuit. The judge accepted the county's argument that the designation procedure dragged on past allowable federal deadlines; the agency, arguing that the desig- nation process was slowed by county protests and legal challenges, is appealing. Bowing to Pressure Even when the movement isn't on firm legal ground, it serves as a potent force for converting the free-floating anger in the region into action. Amid opposition, Interior Secretary Babbitt last month decided to abandon some of his more ambitious proposals for grazing reform. And last summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service shelved an effort to bring back native Gila trout to Mineral Creek. The job required the service to first poison non-native species like brown trout-a sportsman's favorite but a predator that has contributed to the sharp decline in Gila trout. Before the biologists could get to Mineral Creek, protests and threats of armed intervention forced them to reconsider. The nastiest battles, though, have to do with cattle. The Diamond Bar is one of the biggest grazing allotments in the Forest Service system, 227 square miles, most of it in the rugged Gila and Aldo Leopold wil- derness. The current permit holder is Kit Laney, a fourth-generation Catron County rancher who bought his 40-acre ranch and the giant Diamond Bar grazing permit associated with it in 1984 for more than $800,000. (Typically, a rancher buys a piece of private property surrounded by Forest Service land; the private property has a grazing allotment of publicly owned land associated with it, which the property owner has the first option to lease.) When he bought it, the permit allowed Mr. Laney to graze up to 1,188 head of cattle. However, much of the Diamond Bar the Forest Service now says, has been badly overgrazed for decades and can no longer support more than 600 head; environmentalists say even that's too many. Indeed, throughout the Diamond Bar, as on much Western rangeland, the damaging legacy of cattle is apparent. The banks of Main Diamond Creek, one of several Gila River tributaries weaving through the Diamond Bar, are bare and crumbling, mainly because creekside willows and cottonwoods that once checked erosion were long ago devoured or trampled by cows. Though the Main Diamond once brimmed with fish and bird life, the creek is now a muddy, cow-patty-littered trickle much of the year. Its current condition, say biologists, helps explain why every native fish species existing in the Gila River 50 years ago is now either extinct, endangered or under consideration for federal protection. Mr. Laney, an amiable, broad-chested cowboy, vows not to trim his herd - and to defend it with bullets if need be. "I'd go broke," he says of the proposed cutbacks. The Forest Service - badly outnumbered here and its ranks still sprinkled with old-guarders sympathetic to ranchers' concerns - hasn't said what it intends to do about Mr. Laney's defiance. Recently, the service proposed penalizing Mr. Laney 10 cows because his stock repeatedly had been lolling in a badly damaged, off-limits streamside. A tense public hearing on the matter ended with a local county-movement leader, Brub Stone, following ranger Sue Rozacek out to her car. He called her "a communist" and screamed at her to "think hard about what you're going to do, because we'll hard-ass you to death, and you won't get away with it." Later, Danny Fryar, a rancher and the Catron County manager says if Mr. Laney's herd is cut, "there'll be all sorts of trouble. Kit won't have to face them alone." Cowboy Welfare? The leaders of Catron County's movement portray it as a revolt of hard-working stewards of the land against elitist greens and unfeeling bureaucrats. "It's just honest country folk who have cared for this land and have made something of it standing up against government and outsiders that want to take it all away from us," drawls Richard Manning, a tall, weather-beaten rancher who owns thousands of acres of rangeland and is considered the county's richest man. But critics say that Mr. Manning and other ranchers have grown prosperous precisely because the government's cheap grazing fees have amounted to fat, perpetual subsidies - derided as "cowboy welfare." "It's the height of hypocrisy," says Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist with the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project, an area environmental group. "They rail about the federal government taking over their lives, but they're first in line when the feds are handing out subsidies." Environmentalists and some federal regulators also wonder about some of the ranchers' stewardship. In addition to the battered condition of the local range, there is Mr. Manning's ongoing feud with the Forest Service over his plan to open up a mill he owns at the Challenger Mine, which is on Forest Service land in the Mogollon Mountains. (Mr. Manning, citing various legal concepts, regards the mill site as his property, not the Forest Service's.) The Forest Service and state regulators suspect that toxic mine tailings at the mill may be leaching into watercourses. Mr. Manning refuses to agree to let them check, and according to several Forest Service and state officials, has threatened to greet any regulator who comes out to the mine with "100 men with rifles." Mr. Manning denies having made any such threat. In any case, the rhetoric in Catron County is baleful, even by the inflamed standards of Western land battles. People here threaten mayhem with a casualness and frequency that alarms regulators and environmentalists. And, in a development that troubles even some movement leaders, the cause has attracted elements with some peculiar ideas. Strange Bedfellows At the recent rights rally, Frank Nagol hands out a schematic of how to make a pipe bomb. He has a .25-caliber pistol tucked in his waistband. "You have to be prepared to defend yourself from the op- pressors at all times," Mr. Nagol says. Others in the crowd talk of an FBI plot to recruit the Bloods and the Crips off the streets of Los Angeles to form a secret army. "It will be the instrument of a complete government takeover of private property," observes Ed Cramer, a barrel- chested Arizona man. Mr. Cramer is sure this is true because of his contacts in law enforcement; he was a police officer for 31 years, and now serves as a magistrate in Arizona's Hidalgo County. Still others at the rally warn of imminent invasions by United Nations shock troops, Mexican drug dealers and space aliens. Howard Hutchinson, another leader of Catron County's campaign, acknowledges that the movement has attracted "fringe elements - all movements do." He has an interesting history himself: He helped found Earth First!, the radical environmental group that got its start here in the Gila area. Now Mr. Hutchinson lives in a trailer, raises organic artichokes and, as a stalwart in the county movement, battles what he calls "environmental extremists." So far, despite the tension and threats, nobody has been shot over land use in Catron County. But authorities are investigating the vandalism of several Forest Service signs and outback buildings, and the service's deputy chief for the region, Carl Pence, worries that a showdown may be inevitable. "We take these threats very seriously," Mr. Pence says. "... The tinder is there. It wouldn't take much to set it off."
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