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Blueprint For The Destruction Of Rural America?

The Wasting of Catron County

By J. Zane Walley

This article made possible by a Grant from the Paragon Foundation

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 county.

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 gone–gone 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. It’s 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 Bill’s, a local saloon that proudly displays its motto. “Kids that hunt, fish and trap don’t 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 that’ll 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 didn’t 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 nation’s 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 people’s 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, we’re 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 they’ve got us whipped, that the final resistance to centralized government is over, they’re wrong. We don’t 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 don’t 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 hasn’t worked. Instead federal agencies continue tightening the noose to the point of perceptible discrimination.

Back in Uncle Bill’s 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 we’ll 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 won’t 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. I’m out of logs to cut so I’m closing my mill.”

The wolf reintroduction into the Gila Wilderness is viewed most by Catron citizens as the final kiss-of-death to the county’s 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. We’ll lose our hunters and the damn wolves will continue killing our cattle.”

Con’s son, Darrell, a rancher and realtor specializing in ranches, forcefully adds to his dad’s 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 don’t want that; we’d 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. It’s back to the question, “Whadda you want, condos or cows?”

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 pretty grisly.”

Judy’s 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 business!”

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 sheriff’s report.

Bud Collins said, “The wolves don’t appear to be afraid of humans and seem to prefer hanging around the ranch line camp. It’s very disconcerting. It’s 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 law suits.

The Catron County blueprint is spreading to rural communities across our country. It’s 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.”

Author’s 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 don’t they simply pay the ranchers for their livestock?” Frank, and all you other good readers; it ain’t 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 miles–about 7,800–than 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 Mexico’s average, which ranks 47th nationally. The county’s 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


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