While on assignment for a story on wildfire in New Mexico's Gila National Forest, I called up Catron County commissioner Hugh B. McKeen to see if he'd meet up and discuss the recent 297,000-acre Whitewater Baldy Fire that burned through the wilderness and forestland nearby. I had heard a bit about Catron County’s anti-government charm, and was interested to hear McKeen's views on federal forest management. The commissioner was a little wary of a visit from a High Country News reporter at first, but ultimately gave me directions to his ranch between the towns of Alma and Glenwood.
We sat on a little utility trailer under the shade of a cottonwood tree and had a pleasant conversation:
MCKEEN: For years, the people that live here, we knew that the forest is overgrown. And we know it’s unhealthy. When I was a kid, Mill Creek, which comes down at Alma, my granddad had a farm up there. He had a house up there and a big barn. There used to be trout in that creek, and over the years, since all of that growth back in the wilderness and back in the forest, all the tree growth has taken that stream. In other words, the stream used to run year around. My granddad used to raise alfalfa and everybody else did along the creek. Well, it’s all gone. So all those little farms and all those gardens and all that stuff that supported people here, it’s all gone. You take any stream up here that comes out of the forest, they’re all the same. They’re gone. It’s all been soaked up with trees.
What I’m saying is, the water is all disappearing, because the forest is so unhealthy.
HCN: Is that why people are angry? Because the forest is overgrown?
MCKEEN: They want the watershed taken care of, and the Forest Service, all they want to do is preserve things. And the environmental crowd, course, they don’t want anything touched. They want more wilderness. And when you get more wilderness, what does it do? You can’t go in there to do anything.
HCN: The Gila Wilderness has been here since 1924. So there’s probably never going to be logging in there.
HCN: So you’re saying, ‘We don’t want more wilderness’?
MCKEEN: Well what they did, they kept putting fires out up here. Every time a fire starts, they put it out. If it’s a wilderness, then it’s a wilderness and leave it alone. Let it be a wilderness.
You’re the Forest Service. There’s a fire up there. What are you going to do?
HCN: Me? I shouldn’t answer.
MCKEEN: If you put it out, you get paid! Yeah, you get paid to go up there and put it out, and you get hazard pay. You get a lot of money to go put that fire out. So what are you gonna do? You’re gonna put the fire out. You’re not going to care about the environment or the watershed. You’re gonna put the fire out because it’s money in your pocket. So somebody else needs to manage the fire up there for watershed instead of the people making money off it. Look at the fire up there this time. How many millions of dollars went into the Forest Service peoples’ pockets?
HCN: And so the ranchers must be angry about that.
MCKEEN: Well yeah, we been angry for a long time. We don’t carry any weight. We don’t carry nothing. Who’s going to listen to us?
HCN: So do you think it’s more about letting fires burn or about bringing the timber industry back in terms of managing the watershed?
MCKEEN: It’s both. It’s just like this wilderness now. Even if they have to set fire, you know, clean up the forest. Keep it clean. Keep things healthy.
They need somebody else managing to forest. That’s where it starts.
HCN: Who’s going to?
MCKEEN: Well, the counties or the state. The state’s got a far better forest management than the federal government. And you can go to the reservation. They’ve got healthy forests because they do controlled burns. They do logging. They do grazing. They do the whole management. When this wall of fire burned over here (he gestures), you could go over to the reservation line and that’s where the fire stopped.
HCN:As county commissioner, what have been your main causes? What have you wanted to do most?
MCKEEN: Well the main cause you have is trying to keep the county from going broke and trying to keep businesses alive and trying to keep our taxes down and trying to provide the services that we need to provide. When our timber industry went down our town of Reserve went to hell. Drugs came in – alcohol. And why did we quit timbering? Because of the Mexican spotted owl. And who pushed all that? The environmental crowd. The Forest Service didn’t care. They don’t care. They’re almost the same as the environmental crowd.
HCN: So what do you think good forest management principles are guided by?
MCKEEN: The first place, they need to go over and copy the reservation. The reservation hires one guy. And he’s a silviculturist, which is a timber guy. And he’s got common sense. And they hire him to manage the forest. Forest Service, on the other hand has 15 people. They go out to look at something, and they send 15 people. And nobody’s responsible. You gotta have somebody that’s managing the forest and then hold him accountable.
HCN: Okay. Do you have kids that you’ll be able to pass the ranch down to?
MCKEEN: No. They don’t want to come back here. There’s no future here.
HCN: Well what’s gonna happen to this place?
MCKEEN: This place will probably be sold. And I’m seriously thinking about it now because I’m tired of dealing with no water. I’m tired of dealing with the federal government and the Endangered Species Act. Right now, this river’s about to go into my field down here. I’ve had my field’s covered up (by flooding) three times in the past. Right now, the river’s about to go through my levee down here. And upstream, where the river used to be in a channel, they won’t let me clean the channel. They won’t let me put the river back in the channel. Why? Because of some minnow. So they just hold everything up. I’m just tired of fighting all this crap. If the country wants to go to hell, that’s okay. I’ve tried to do what I thought was right.
HCN: Now, you said over the phone that High Country News hates ranchers. How do people think that High Country News is against ranchers? We were founded by a rancher.
MCKEEN: They’ve had articles about me and the county before. They lean toward the other side.
Did you know that the endangered species has a lot to do with this fire?
(The Forest Service) came in here and poisoned a whole lot of the streams up in the wilderness, and they killed a whole lot of the native fish where people used to go to fish. And then they go in and put in this one species – the Gila trout. Well they killed a whole lot of people going up to use the forest, because you couldn’t fish.
So what happens when they have a fire in that area? Well they go put it out to save the Gila trout, see. And why is it on the Endangered Species List? Because they don’t have any water because the streams are deteriorated just like everything. But the main thing is the minute they have a fire they put it out because they don’t want the fire where the Gila trout are. And the fire needs to burn in order for the forest to be healthy in order for us to have more water in the stream (for the fish). They’re managing for the survival of the fish and not the forest health. You follow?
HCN: Yeah, I follow. You’re saying what scientists are saying. That we need fire in the forest to have a healthy forest.
HCN: But do you think the rest of the community understands that?
MCKEEN: They’re beginning to. They didn’t understand, but they’re figuring it out.
HCN: So their anger is over things you’ve been expressing?
HCN: Have you been battling with the Forest Service for a long time?
MCKEEN: Well, yeah, as the county commissioner and as a person.
MCKEEN: Long time. They cut my permit – 25 percent – my cattle permit.
HCN: How does that hurt your business?
MCKEEN: Well, if I take 25 percent of your salary, how does it hurt you?
HCN: Is that what it does?
MCKEEN: Well, yeah. It takes more than that because when you have a business and you have expenses, when they take 25 percent off the top, you still have the same expenses basically, so you get to where you’re just breaking even.
HCN: And a lot of the ranchers, they go through the same thing?
MCKEEN: Go through the same thing. Forest Service will cut your cattle every chance they get.
HCN: Why did they cut it? Did they give a reason?
MCKEEN: It’s forestland on that side and private land on this side. And they said, ‘We don’t want you to have any cattle on this side where the minnows are’. Okay. So somebody leaves my neighbor’s gate open. His cows get in there and they come and see them and they come up and cut my permit. So his cows get in there, and so what happens whenever you have a ranger that don’t like you? He comes up and he sees the cows. He don’t tell you. Comes back the next day. Cows are still here. Doesn’t tell me. Comes back a third day. Cows are still in the river. Then, instead of phoning me or telling me to go move them, see, I mean that’s the important part. The cows are in the minnow area. Well, let’s get them out right away. No he don’t come and see me. He don’t come and phone me or do anything. He writes me a certified letter – a big, long certified letter. “Saw your cows in there three times, and you made no effort to remove them.” Loads the letter up. Sends it out. And what it is, is a letter of non-compliance which leads to a cut in your permit. So then, he puts that on your record. When I get the letter, I go up and look – there’s no cows. I don’t know what’s going on. So I went up and talk to my neighbor and he says, “Oh somebody left my gate open, my cows got in there, and I went and got ‘em out.” But meanwhile, I’ve got this letter, and so I went to court to fight them. But you can’t fight the government because they got this letter. The judge looks at it and says, ‘Oh my god, looks at this. You let those cows get in the river, and they're damaging the minnow habitat.”
They don’t like me. So they’re going to do anything they can to put me out of business.
The other thing that you don’t know about is that when you go to court with the government, it goes through an appeals process. In other words, (because of the rules) I’m guilty until proven innocent. I can’t have a jury trial. I didn’t know all this. When you appeal a decision they made, you can’t just go to court. If a ranger makes a decision, you appeal it to the supervisor. If the supervisor goes against you, you appeal it to the regional office. And when the regional office goes against you, then you can go to court. Well that all takes years to go through. Meanwhile, they still got my cows. They’ve taken my livelihood away. See.
Once they cut my cattle for penalizing reasons, I never get it back. I never will get those cattle back. My family won’t get them back. My son can’t get them back. No relation of mine can get these cattle back.
When they took away part of my livelihood, they took it from my wife too. What did she do? She didn’t do anything.
And you wonder why we hate the government, or why we don’t want more government?
HCN: Man, this is starting to get off the fire story.
MCKEEN: Yeah, it’s getting off the fire story, but it’s all part of it. People are beginning to learn around here and they hate the government. You know what the Forest Service is doing now? Instead of driving green trucks, they started driving white pickup trucks.
Neil LaRubbio is an intern at High Country News.
Image of Hugh B McKeen courtesy the author
Image of Gila trout release courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.