Catron County Commissioner Auggie Shellhorn is a big man, rugged,
callused and tough from years of ranching high country and fighting
forest fires with Hot Shot teams. He faces a task equal to his
size and spunk in rescuing his economically ravaged New Mexico
Auggie stops his aging pickup truck on a slight rise overlooking
a large abandoned and rusting sawmill, the ruins of the industry
that was the very lifeblood of his community. He sighs heavily.
When the mill was running, everyone who wanted to work had a
job. People could afford to raise their families here and our
county could afford to provide a decent education for the children.
But, that is all gonegone thanks to the spotted owl and the Endangered
Species Act. Shellhorn is silent for a few moments then perks
up. Someday, and we pray it is soon, America is going to need
our timber again and so the county bought the mill. Its our investment
in the future. We gotta believe in it.
From the old mill we drive into the county seat at Reserve, N.M.
and enter Uncle Bills, a local saloon that proudly displays its
motto. Kids that hunt, fish and trap dont mug little old ladies!
Auggie introduced me as a writer for RANGE magazine and Paragon
Foundation which eased the tense looks I was getting from the
grizzly clientele. The heated and controversial U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service (FWS) wolf reintroduction hearings were scheduled to be
held in Reserve, so big city journalists had beleaguered the tiny
population. It seemed that everyone in the bar had a 60 Minutes
II, Discovery, or other network camera stuck in their face over
the past week. We sure are glad we finally got some press in
town thatll tell our side of the story, smiled a tiny lady tipping
her beer mug to me. We just bout had enough of them wolfers.
Catron County indeed has had enough of the media and the wolfers.
The citizens have been assailed without mercy and without pity,
from environmentalists, the federal government and biased media
for over a decade.
The economy is wholly devastated, the school system de-funded
and, most sadly, Catron has lost its greatest treasure, the children.
As communities declined, families left and with the families go
the children. Shellhorn relates, The spotted owl didnt just
affect the sawmill workers. Truckers, fallers, planters, thinners,
and construction workers lost their jobs. We lost so many children
because of families moving away, that we shrunk from a 12- to
a six-man football team. In 1998 only eight boys and one girl
graduated from Reserve High School. Before the spotted owl, our
graduating class was 20 to 25. We have such limited funds for
education that we had to shorten the school week to four days.
The county seems to have been singled out as a testing ground
for every new land-taking concept based on the Endangered Species
Act. Perhaps it is even more than a random singling out. Conceivably,
it is as rancher Hugh McKeen believes, a federal test-bed for
like-actions in other rural communities.
The actions by the U.S. Forest Service, FWS and federal courts
have been so continuous, so uncompromising, that they could be
interpreted as a deliberate retaliation for the Herculean independence
displayed by Catron citizens. These good people have resisted,
and still defy the heavy hand of the federal government on their
personal lives and lands.
Catron County caught the nations attention with their effort
to return to a regulation-free life. It birthed the county independence
movement. It was the first to pass statutes resisting federal
reign over national land within its boundaries. The message has
been plain: Get the federal government out of our peoples lives.
Jim Catron, the county attorney, is a fourth-generation New Mexican
and a distant relative of Thomas Benton Catron, for whom Catron
County is named. There is a culture in the American West, he
says. It lives and it breathes and it is under assault in the
name of environmental protection. Under the guise of environmental
conservation, were attempting to destroy the last vestige of
people who resist central government in the world. If those one-worlders
and those federal imperialists really believe theyve got us whipped,
that the final resistance to centralized government is over, theyre
wrong. We dont use bullets and swords; now we use lawsuits and
injunctions. When these people see government getting strong enough
to push them off their lands, destroy their culture and their
livelihoods, when these people see the federal government protecting
owls and fish instead of humans, they tend to fight back.
Reserve, with its empty streets and boarded up windows seems an
unlikely place to ferment a rebellion and the citizens certainly
dont see themselves as revolutionaries. They are common working
folks who were pushed against the wall, put out of work and watched
their lives being destroyed by over-zealous regulatory agencies
and environmentalist lawsuits. Their county leaders merely passed
ordinances they believed would defend the citizens livelihoods.
It hasnt worked. Instead federal agencies continue tightening
the noose to the point of perceptible discrimination.
Back in Uncle Bills bar, Gary Harris, owner of the last tiny,
one-man sawmill in Catron County explains how absurd the Forest
Service regulations have become. We had a fire in the Gilas a
couple years back. Sixteen thousand acres of prime large trees
burned. Out of that the Forest Service only allowed five acres
of Douglas fir to be salvaged. We only cut for two weeks. As we
were salvaging, the enviros got a court order to quit cutting
and quit skidding the burned timber. So the rest, and it was choice
wood, simply rotted. Outside of that, the Forest Service has only
had one timber sale in 10 years. It is ridiculous. We have 60
percent more acreage in tree cover today than in 1935. We are
surrounded by timber, but people are building houses with lumber
trucked in from Canada.
Gary stares into his beer for a long moment, shakes his head,
turns to me with a somber face, and says, Look, here is how it
is. There is no timber for sale, after the wolf reintroduction
ranching will dry up, the wolves have limited game to eat so after
the deer and elk are gone well lose our hunter income. It boils
down to the fact that ways to make a living are vanishing. People
are suffering. These are proud folks who wont ride welfare and
they have nothing left. We have suffered a lot of casualities.
Some turned to the bottle, some blew their brains out, and many
gave up and went away. I guess it has got me too. Im out of logs
to cut so Im closing my mill.
The wolf reintroduction into the Gila Wilderness is viewed most
by Catron citizens as the final kiss-of-death to the countys
economy. Con Allred, old-time rancher and former New Mexico State
Representative sits by the window at the Golden Girls café in
Glenwood, a small village down the road from Reserve, drinking
coffee and talking politics. He sums up the dilemma posed by the
wolves. We have almost no deer left and the elk population is
so small the wolves will wipe them out fast. Well lose our hunters
and the damn wolves will continue killing our cattle.
Cons son, Darrell, a rancher and realtor specializing in ranches,
forcefully adds to his dads observations. Nobody wants to purchase
a working ranch where wolves are a threat to livestock. The effect
is that ranching properties are seriously devalued. Those folks
who need to sell are going to be forced to subdivide. This pristine
land will be turned into a sprawl of summer home subdivisions.
We dont want that; wed like to see the old ranches kept intact.
By reintroducing the wolf, the environmentalists and federal agencies
are instrumental in increasing the population pressure on our
resources. Its back to the question, Whadda you want, condos
Catron County resisted the Mexican grey wolf reintroduction plan
to the bitter end. In March, they hosted a rally in Glenwood to
provide alternative information on the reintroduction program.
A thousand peaceful folks from all walks of life showed up for
the meeting to protest the wolf reintroduction. The major media
swarmed the assembly obviously hoping to further reinforce the
violent redneck image of the Catron folks that has been carefully
choreographed by federal agencies, and environmentalist-driven
media over the last decade. They seemed disappointed that nothing
bad happened. An Albuquerque newspaper reported the rally as remarkably
sedate. A television station in Albuquerque showed five seconds
of the Glenwood rally, then allowed an environmentalist considerable
air time on how ranchers destroy the land. Skewed sound bites
and a prejudiced notion of what was going to be reported was painfully
obvious. The only media that gave accurate accountings of the
events were small and independent.
The final inputs into the Wolf Reintroduction Environmental Impact
Statement (EIS) were conducted in Reserve and Silver City, N.M.
by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service shortly after the Glenwood
Rally. They were extraordinarily tense meetings because shortly
before the hearings official reports indicated that FWS baiting
with elk and deer cadavers had lured a pack of reintroduced wolves
across the Arizona border. Once in New Mexico, the pack promptly
started killing livestock.
Bud Collins and his partner Judy Cummings of the Cross Y ranch
near Glenwood were hit first. Collins said a fetus calf was taken
from the cow by the pack of seven wolves, possibly before she
was dead. She ran about two miles from the pasture to the line
camp, he said. They were chewing on her all the way, and she
died close to the cabin. She was looking for protection. It was
Judys take on the slaying of the Cross Y livestock was one of
shock and betrayal. She was new to ranching and had invested a
lifetime of savings from her former position as a vice president
of The Bank of America in California. Ms. Cummings was a life
member of Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and the
Environmental Defense Fund. Suddenly reality hit me, she said.
All the green groups I had been contributing to were working
with the government to put me and every rancher like me out of
A few days later the pack downed a 1,400-pound bull on Soothing
Iron Mesa. The wolf pack seemed unafraid of the two hunters who
happened upon the scene of its kill. They were calm and reluctant
to leave, according to a sheriffs report.
Bud Collins said, The wolves dont appear to be afraid of humans
and seem to prefer hanging around the ranch line camp. Its very
disconcerting. Its hard to get the horses to come up here anymore.
The wolves killed the bull about two miles from the Glenwood Elementary
School. Then a solitary male was spied several times wandering
through the tiny village of Alma eating pet cats and hanging around
the school bus stop. The alarmed communities were suddenly held
hostage by the rogue wolf and fear that the pack might attack
a child. The threat was so real that they kept their children
inside until the FWS trapped the pack and sighted the lone wolf
well away from the locale.
It was under these incensed conditions that the final hearing
on the EIS was held. The Wolf Reintroduction Team, after presenting
formal statements, turned the meeting over to a stern professional
facilitator and sat stone-faced and mute in their chairs refusing
to answer or in any way acknowledge questions from the hundreds
of angry people in the audience. Dozens of representatives from
New Mexico agencies, county commissions, city officials, hunters,
ranchers, mothers and children stood and voiced to the emotionless
panel of FWS employees that they did not want the wolves reintroduced
into their backyards.
None of this outpouring by citizens against the wolf reintroduction
was heeded. Shortly after the hearings, the wolves were unleashed.
Is Catron County a blueprint for the destruction of rural America?
Certainly the havoc wreaked there can be effectively applied anywhere.
It would be simple, because the fiats to effectively accomplish
such a plan are in place. Use the Endangered Species Act to shut
down major industries and destroy the tax base.
When the tax base is destroyed, funding for schools and public
services are diminished. Working people are forced to leave for
lack of employment. Private lands found to be habitat for endangered
species would be so devalued that owners would be forced to sell
them to governmental agencies or nonprofit groups like The Nature
Conservancy, further reducing the tax base. Private citizens cannot
afford to defend themselves against the power, might and the unlimited
monetary resources of the federal government and a judicial system
that seems to have predetermined the course of environmental-takings
The Catron County blueprint is spreading to rural communities
across our country. Its not confined just to the West. The U.S.
Fish & Wildlife Service is forcing hundreds of farmers in Ohio
off their private land. West Virginia recently watched helplessly
as the EPA decimated the coal mining industry. As West Virginia
Senator Rockefeller recently said. It sure looks like the War
on The West is moving East.
Authors Note: In writing this article I thought of my good friend
and mentor in Constitutional Law, Alabama Attorney Frank Bailey.
We were discussing the problems in Catron County and he innocently
said, Well, the government cannot take private property with
a species that they protect, and therefore imply that they own,
so why dont they simply pay the ranchers for their livestock?
Frank, and all you other good readers; it aint that simple! I
hope this humble scribbling will give you a larger view of what
is happening to rural America.
Facts on Catron County
Catron County is the largest county in New Mexico. Lying four to
five hours by car from Albuquerque and Phoenix, it has no local
newspapers, no radio or TV stations, and no computer shops. Instead
of services and media, it has space. The county covers more square
milesabout 7,800than Delaware or Connecticut. The population
is about 2,700. The federal government owns about two-thirds of
Catron County, compared to 32 percent of all New Mexico.
After logging was shut down in 1990, 25 percent of all residents
lived below the poverty line. Per capita income was $8,537, nearly
$3,000 below New Mexicos average, which ranks 47th nationally.
The countys unemployment rate of 10.8 percent in July 1995 was
twice the national rate.
One hundred people lost their jobs in 1990 after the federal government
started restricting timber-cutting in the area to protect the
threatened Mexican spotted owl. Since then the county has lost
over $1 million a year in taxes. It is the only county in New
Mexico where the tax base is decreasing.
As the Forest Service and wolves force ranchers off their allotments,
the Livestock Tax paid to the county has declined from $55,000
in 1992 to $28,000 in 1997.
Total monies received from the federal government dropped from
$623,000 in 1990 to $273,000 in 1996. This decrease has forced
the school system to a four-day week and diminished the economic
infrastructure to the point that the county cannot afford to maintain
back woods roads necessary to attract tourists and hunters.JZW