SILVER CITY, N.M. - Black Canyon is a place that only a hard-core stream addict should be able to love, so barren are its edges, so sparse its grasses.
canyon offers a park-like atmosphere in America's first wilderness.
The stream runs freely over its shallow bed, and a few 75- to
100-foot-tall cottonwoods provide shelter from the
But a crucial element is missing. The aging
willows are the last of their kind in this canyon. There are no
beautiful - it's dying," says Susan Schock. "The young trees aren't
(regenerating). When the old trees die in 10 to 20 years, it will
For more than two years, this canyon
and a half-dozen more like it on one of the Southwest's biggest
cattle operations have been a passion for Schock and a few hundred
supporters. A rancher's granddaughter and Tucson, Ariz., native who
moved to Silver City in 1990 to escape the city life, Schock runs a
group called Gila Watch. It has fought both a fourth-generation
rancher and a federal agency to a standstill over the fate of this
Black Canyon is straddled by the
Diamond Bar grazing allotment that blankets much of the Gila and
Aldo Leopold wildernesses. The fate of the canyon and the allotment
have turned a once-peaceful town tense and
Silver City, long a sleepy mining town
of 11,000, seems poised to join Moab as a "new Western" town.
Newcomers from California and Seattle are jacking up the prices of
century-old brick houses. They're adding galleries, espresso bars
and gourmet restaurants to the town's cowboy bars and thrift
A mixed culture of ranchers, Hispanic
copper miners, New Agers, business people and aging hippies, the
town has started appearing in books listing the country's best
small towns and retirement communities - a prescription for rapid
Right now, the town is knee-deep in
culture clashes. Boycotts, a firing, censorship, threats of
violence, radio ads attacking environmentalists as "pagan nature
worshippers' and hate-filled letters to the editor have all been
part of the anti-environmentalist agenda.
Schock and her supporters around the country, the Diamond Bar is
worth the fight because it underscores all that's wrong with Forest
Service management of cows in a wilderness.
let a rancher keep making loan payments to the bank, and to buy
time for the Forest Service to make decisions, the Black Canyon was
grazed to the bone. Numerous other canyons and streams on the
Diamond Bar are as bad off, or worse, with many having no water at
Lying 65 miles northeast of Silver
City by car, the Diamond Bar allotment is a seemingly endless
series of steep, rocky and juniper-topped ridges and canyons
climbing 4,000 feet through the wilderness to the 10,000-foot-high
Continental Divide. At 227 square miles, it's the biggest Forest
Service grazing allotment in the Southwest. It's also remote, lying
two hours of rutted, car-killing dirt roads from the nearest paved
Schock, 41, with medium brown hair
dipping past her shoulders, is hardly a yuppie. Gila Watch gets
less than $10,000 annually in foundation grants. Her friend and
colleague Michael Sauber pays the phone bills with income from his
backpacking-bike shop. But she has been one of the engines driving
Working from a computer and
telephone in her dining room, she has dashed out scores of memos
and letters, press releases, newsletters and articles about the
Diamond Bar and sent them around the country. She has battered
federal agencies with Freedom of Information Act requests and
brought in technical experts to study the stream damage first-hand.
She, Sauber and other Gila Watchers have backpacked up to 20 miles
in the wilderness, to monitor streams and find trespassing
Working with The Wilderness Society, the
National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups, Gila
Watch has successfully pressured the Forest Service to delay
approving dozens of new livestock tanks in the wilderness and to
conduct a full environmental impact study. Last fall, the agency
proposed cutting the rancher's permitted cattle numbers by nearly
Gila Watch is not alone. The Greater
Gila Biodiversity Project is making its own waves. Using the law as
its club, that group's biologists - serious, intense activists who
used to survey spotted owls for the Forest Service - are prodding
the federal government into protecting endangered and threatened
birds and fish. Their battleground is the entire Gila River
ecosystem, covering much of southwest New Mexico and southeast
Arizona and encompassing more ground than Maryland and Delaware
Ranchers and their allies worry that
the Diamond Bar cutbacks could put them out of a living. Working
with mining interests, hunters, off-road vehicle fans and others,
they pack local meetings and paint environmentalists as
The ugliest message came last fall
from Robert Anderson, a retired postal worker. His letter to the
Silver City Daily Press blasted "eco-pornographers' and suggested
poisoning threatened fish
"Perhaps to enrich
the water in the Gila River, we might utilize some heavy wire and a
few large, heavy rocks," Anderson wrote. "We could attach the wire
securely to the rocks on one end. The other end could be attached
securely, very securely, to the arm, leg or other body extremity of
an eco-pornographer. Deposit all three objects in one of the deep
pools in the river and presto! Or adios or something."
Many in Silver City say Anderson has plenty of
sympathizers. "I could see where his mind was at - get rid of the
damned things, the fish," said John Fowler, a rancher, sawmill
operator and former president of the local People For The West!
chapter. "I'm not willing to compromise anymore. I'm not saying we
should do what he says, but I know where his frustration comes
Last fall, rancher and miner pressure
cost a prestigious local bike race key sponsors. Until recently,
the five-day, 340-mile springtime event had been named the Scott
Nichols Tour of the Gila, after a local auto dealer who had donated
$50,000 over seven years.
But Nichols backed out
after ranchers, miners and other customers started grousing about
one of the tour's leading lights: Sauber, the lanky bike shop
owner. Elf-like, with a long white beard, Sauber co-sponsored the
race - and helped found Gila
"It doesn't matter what
I feel about it. It only matters what my customers feel about it,"
Nichols said a few months later. "In a small town, a small
business, if you're trying to lead a crusade and maintain a
business, you are not going to succeed."
town's ugliness makes Schock feel as if she lives in the South
during the George Wallace-Bull Connor era of the early
For years, she says, ranchers got their
way, dominating the Forest Service and holding down any pressure to
Sue Kozacek would put it
another way: "(Ranchers') grandparents were born here," says the
Forest Service ranger in the Mimbres District northeast of Silver
City. "They don't have a lot of experience with things outside
them. When you get in that situation, you don't see the big
Cows and the Old West still dominate
the local culture. Elementary school kids join a program in which
teachers borrow money from local banks to buy a cow at auction, and
the children learn to raise and brand it. In 1992, an elementary
school gave away a .30-06 Savage rifle as a raffle prize to raise
money for playground improvements.
however, the Forest Service has started paying more attention to
the newcomers. With endangered fish and birds hanging over the
agency's head, it will come under even more pressure in the future
to move cows away from river bottoms. The agency's solution is
likely to be a game of musical cows. It wants to free streamsides
of cows by bulldozing earthen stock tanks and pipelines at public
Schock and other environmentalists are
fighting those measures, arguing that they aren't worth the cost
and can bring their own environmental damage. This has brought even
more bitterness from the
environmentalists just moved in here, they haven't lived here, they
haven't made their living here," said Jim Shelley, a rancher whose
plan to move cows from the Gila River was blocked last fall by
Schock because the plan would have cost taxpayers tens of thousands
of dollars to build public improvements. "I have trouble believing
they have this county at heart."
predicts that his side will eventually triumph, once the general
public realizes that "extremists' want ranchers put out to pasture.
But some ranchers aren't taking chances. Hugh Mc-Keen, a rancher
and commissioner in neighboring Catron County, says many ranchers
he knows are buying guns and
"These people have
fought for this land at one time. There have been killings over
water. It runs in the genes," McKeen said. "You have very
independent people here. They want to be left alone, but their
government oppresses them and the environmentalists come in here
and want to oppress their life."
rancher in this forest can trace his Southwest New Mexico roots to
the 19th century. Nearly 30 percent of the Gila forest's 130-odd
ranching permittees are from out of town or out of state, Forest
Service records show.
Kit and Sherry Laney, who
run the Diamond Bar, are fourth-generation Catron County ranchers
who say their way of life is threatened.
built like a football halfback at 5-feet-11-inches and 195 pounds.
His dark hair is cropped almost military short. While Susan
Schock's blue Honda Civic has a bumper sticker saying, "Stop Public
Lands Ranching," Laney's pickup truck has a sticker saying, "Hungry
and Out of Work? Eat an Environmentalist."
as Schock complains that many environmentalists are mealy-mouthed,
Laney says he considers a lot of ranchers too wimpy "in not telling
the government to go to hell."
Now the Laneys
are prepared to say just that. Last fall, the federal agency issued
a draft environmental impact statement proposing to slash the
Laneys' permitted cattle numbers from 1,188 to 600-800 per
Earlier plans to bulldoze into the
wilderness up to 37 livestock watering tanks, each holding as much
water as a family uses at home in a year, would be scaled back to
20 tanks. More than 40 percent of the allotment would be closed to
Once the Forest Service makes a
decision on the Diamond Bar, both environmentalists and ranchers
plan to take it to court. Environmentalists contend that even one
tank in the wilderness is too many and that any new water
impoundments are precedent-setting.
bitter because eight years ago he bought the Diamond Bar's grazing
permit only because the Forest Service had signed a memorandum with
the previous owner, a Texas bank, giving the rancher the right to
run 1,188 head a year and build stock tanks. At the time, he said,
Forest Service officials told him the agreement was as "good as
Today, no Forest Service official will
admit to having said "good as gold." Agency officials say the 1984
agreement made it clear that they can raise or lower cattle numbers
when conditions warrant. One top forest official, however, said the
agency may have to buy Laney out to avoid a legal
Garry Engel, the district ranger for the
Diamond Bar, says, "I really feel bad about the whole thing. We
thought that memorandum was something we could accomplish. It was
something we signed in good faith."
contended the current Forest Service proposal would keep cattle
away from the most sensitive streams, and allow cows to graze in
areas already heavy on fences and stock ponds and light on
non-hunting recreational uses.
But Laney, who
ran 960 cows last year, says he cannot survive on 600 to 800 cows.
He says he wants to protect the Diamond Bar's streams and rivers,
but can't do it until the federal government lets him build his
stock tanks to get the cows onto higher
"This business is
ingrained, it's a part of you, and somebody comes and takes that
away from you. They might as well take your life," Laney
For the Laneys, ranching in an isolated
wilderness has meant sacrifice. They herd cows on horseback. They
haul fenceposts by mule-drawn wagon. Power lines stop five miles
away, so propane gas lights their lamps and refrigerates their
food. They said they buy no canned goods, make cheese, milk and
butter at home, can jelly from home-grown grapes and berries and
trade cows' milk to a neighbor for vegetables.
As she munched freeze-dried enchiladas while
hiking up a Diamond Bar streambank, Schock tried to explain why she
has no sympathy for ranchers.
Before she left
Tucson, she barely escaped repossession of her home when the
Federal Housing Administration refused to refinance her mortgage.
Divorced, in school and raising a child alone, she fell behind on
her payments. FHA refused her because it didn't believe her
employment prospects were
"I had to change,"
Schock said. "Laney made a bad, stupid deal. How many people in
America suffer because they made bad decisions?"
Family history also shapes her views. In 1913,
her grandfather Raymond Schock homesteaded a ranch in southeast
Arizona. As late as the 1950s, the ranch was grand enough to grace
the cover of Arizona Highways. The cover picture could have come
out of a Western movie, with a windmill standing in the background,
grasses springing skyward, and huge, cumulus clouds hanging
Her father would take her on hikes
across that ranch, show her mesquite and yucca invading the land
and tell how drought and grazing were rubbing out native
Schock calls Laney a "land abuser."
Looking up Main Diamond Creek, a dry, gravel streambed, she shook
her head and said, "Wasteland." According to Schock's advisor,
Arizona State University Professor Robert Ohmart, this should be a
narrow, deep, year-round stream, lined by a thicket of cottonwoods
Instead, the stream trickled back
and forth in a 30-foot-wide channel, the two-foot-deep banks were
collapsing and the south bank was bare. The north bank was lined
with chamisa, which often invades after cattle have eaten the
streamside vegetation and barren banks cave
"People don't know what
we've lost," Schock said. "We memorialize this shit as the West."
Yet last year, Laney won an award for
excellence from the New Mexico chapter of the Society for Range
The society noted that federal
studies found that good quality forage had risen nearly by
one-third since the Laneys took over, bare soil had dropped 7
percent, and 81 percent of the allotment was improving or stable.
It didn't say if the "stable" land was in good or bad shape. The
range award also didn't say, however, that the Forest Service's
studies show that the amount of rock found on the Diamond Bar
doubled and the amount of vegetation and leaves and other litter
dropped slightly from 1979 to 1992.
streamside grasses and trees are like savings in a bank, to be used
only when necessary.
ranch really gets dry, you can kick the cows out there and do
damned good on it for a short time," he said.
Asked, then, why his cows keep grazing the Diamond Bar's
streambanks, Laney replied, "You've gotta pay the bank. If they
want to say I'm an abuser, I only abuse to the extent the federal
government gives me no alternative."
Diamond Bar is not just a story about cows and stock tanks. It's
about banks and how financial pressures can affect federal
A decade ago, the Forest Service
wanted to slash the Diamond Bar's cattle numbers to 800 or so. The
previous operator had gone bankrupt and the grazing permit belonged
to a Texas bank. The last serious operator, John Donaldson, had
voluntarily cut his legal cattle limit in the 1960s from 2,000 to
1,200 and ran 500 to 600
"The ranch had been
overgrazed and I was trying to bring it back," recalled Donaldson,
who left in 1973 and now ranches near Sonoita, Ariz. "The bottoms
were eaten out."
Ten years and two
less-attentive ranchers later, the Forest Service said in a report
that the range's condition was mostly poor or very poor. The cows
themselves were in poor or very poor shape during dry seasons, the
But the prospect of livestock cuts
made the Texas bank that held the grazing permit go ballistic.
James Lewis, vice president of the Federal Intermediate Credit
Bank, told Forest Service officials that he was "jolted." He warned
that the cuts could slash the Diamond Bar's value by
Then, the Range Improvement Task
Force, a group of New Mexico State University scientists,
re-examined the documents at the bank's request. It and the Forest
Service concluded that the negative reports had errors. In 1984,
the bank and Forest Service signed the now-controversial memo
jacking up cow numbers and allowing stock tanks - without
conducting studies of the environmental effects.
Today, it's hard to prove what the land's condition was back then.
The agency doesn't have some key range data from the 1970s and is
missing inspection reports from 1981 and the middle 1980s. The
agency's 1992 study found that the range was largely in fair
condition. But the study failed to look at riparian areas or at
land that was being grazed at the time.
Sherry Laney were in their mid-20s when they bought the Diamond Bar
in December 1985. To buy the ranch, the Laneys put together
$310,000 from their and their relatives' holdings, local court
records show, and took out a $560,000 mortgage from the Texas
The 1984 memorandum's effects are still
lingering. Critics now charge that because the memo's high cattle
numbers enhanced the ranch's value and loan mortgage payments, the
government is under fierce pressure not to reduce cattle numbers
and keep the Laneys from going bust.
Laney says that one reason he bought the grazing permit was that it
was cheap, compared to most other allotments, largely because 90
percent of it lay in wilderness.
family had been ranching in Utah before moving to nearby Luna,
N.M., in 1883, at the church's direction. Sherry's family had
ranched in Germany before moving to neighboring Datil in the
"Until us, the problem
was that no one could run the ranch," Laney said. "Absentee owners
would buy the ranch, but they were broke. Most didn't know how to
mind the store.
told us there's not another lending institution in the country that
would loan money on this place," he said.
a year, the Laneys said they concluded that the Diamond Bar didn't
have enough water to support nearly 1,200 cows without trashing the
streams, even with 15 new tanks. They went to the Forest Service
and asked permission to put in 45 tanks.
years later, the Forest Service still hadn't decided. Environmental
groups such as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and The
Wilderness Society were protesting, and the Forest Service was
issuing and revising plan after plan.
In late summer 1991, Schock and Sauber were
eating a quiet dinner at home when a friend, Rex Johnson, burst in.
Johnson, a Forest Service employee, told them he had just gotten an
insider tip that a plan to build 37 tanks in the wilderness was a
All were outraged, but none more
than Schock. An inner-city neighborhood activist when she lived in
Tucson, she was hardly the stereotypical wilderness lover. She had
fought to stop freeways and to save historic houses and had never
read a word of Aldo Leopold. But she knew water issues well, had
hiked all over Arizona in her 20s and reacted viscerally at the
thought of bulldozers in the wilderness.
spring 1992, she, Sauber and a handful of others backpacked to the
Diamond Bar's East Fork of the Gila River, where dirt banks were
falling away and streamsides were as bare as on an irrigation
ditch. She was sickened.
In April 1992, on her
40th birthday, she helped Western New Mexico University's biology
club organize a Diamond Bar forum. A turbulent crowd of 250 people
heard Laney say, "I'll sell, if you've got enough money."
"I don't need to buy out
ranchers who lease public grazing rights," Albuquerque grazing
activist Jim Fish replied. "I already own that land."
That summer, Bob Ohmart, an
Arizona State University riparian expert and cattle industry
critic, flew to Silver City at Gila Watch's expense to walk the
Diamond Bar's streams. Raised on an eastern New Mexico farm and
ranch, owner of 20 cows, and looking like a rancher with tanned
skin and close-cropped gray hair, he later said it was the worst
overgrazing he'd ever
"Upper Black Canyon was
decimated. There was nothing left to erode, the banks were beaten
to death. The beaver were so desperate for food that they were
eating two-foot diameter cottonwoods."
same summer, Forest Service ranger Gerry Engel gave Laney
permission to keep his cows in Black Canyon an extra 30 days,
saying that "the cattle have already eaten everything. They can't
do any more damage." Later, under pressure from environmentalists,
Engel backed off, and the cattle left as
Last winter, Engel admitted that the
Forest Service had mismanaged Black Canyon by allowing overgrazing.
He said the agency hadn't wanted to put Laney out of business while
it was trying to make long-term decisions about the ranch. He
maintained that the grazing hadn't caused any long-term damage
since no major floods have come along to wipe out streambanks,
although he acknowledged that the grazing is delaying the stream's
recovery. Ohmart disagreed, saying that continued grazing means
continued erosion, flood damage and
Engel is a tall, balding,
mustached man who uses phrases such as "resource damage" for
overgrazed areas, while environmentalists use "nuked."
He says his freedom to act on the Diamond Bar
is hampered by congressional grazing guidelines, passed in 1980,
that say grazing shouldn't be curtailed simply because land is
wilderness. The guidelines also say that improvements such as stock
tanks can be built in wilderness "primarily for the purpose of
resource protection," not to bring in more cows.
Engel says stock tanks can be justified to protect the streams.
Environmental groups say water tanks violate the guidelines,
because cutting cows would better protect the
Today, environmentalist and ranching
groups are sharpening their pencils for a court fight over how the
guidelines should apply to the Diamond Bar, and eventually, every
wilderness area in the
"We just happen to be
at the wrong place at the wrong time," Engel said. "This is kind of
all coming to a head."
Schock, the walls are closing in. Increasingly, agencies are
denying her access to documents, particularly those containing
"confidential" rancher financial information, and the Forest
Service wouldn't let her attend its annual meetings with
Gov. Bruce King, a public-lands rancher,
tried unsuccessfully to veto her from Interior Secretary Babbitt's
New Mexico grazing panel, according to two New Mexico
environmentalists and a congressional source. King's staff denied
Ranchers accuse Schock, who lacks a
college degree although she has studied biology and ecology
extensively, of having no credentials. She replies that the
Ph.D.-laden range scientists at New Mexico State University "are
totally out in left field." Forest officials, frequent targets in a
"Hoof in Mouth" column in Schock's Cattle Guard newsletter, knock
her for personalizing issues. She replies that she only started
personalizing issues after a Forest Service official accused her at
a public meeting of not telling the truth about conditions on the
Diamond Bar when she was reading from a Forest Service
In addition to fighting with the
Forest Service and ranchers, Schock has taken on other
On the upper Gila River, 25
miles northwest of Silver City, two environmental groups, three
ranchers and the Forest Service had spent three years forging a
compromise to build pipelines, pump stations and other improvements
to move cattle from 32 miles of river bottom without hurting the
ranchers' business. The bottom line was $58,000 in federal money to
keep rancher Jim Shelley's 77 cows on the land.
But Gila Watch, in Schock's words, put the skids on the plan. Gila
Watch and the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project argued the plan
violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not looking at
the improvements' effects on the uplands.
late December, the Forest Service withdrew a previous decision
approving the plan, thus delaying it until more studies could be
done. Acting Gila Forest supervisor Carl Pence admitted his staff
had made a mistake by not looking at all the issues. But Howard
Smith of one environmental group, Friends of the Gila, accused
Schock of posturing.
it as a war; she wants to change the course of the West," Smith
said. "All we want is a springboard, a starting point."
Rick Johnson of The Nature Conservancy, which
owns land in the area, blasted Schock for "divisiveness' and said
the plan, while not perfect, was a good start. Forest Service
officials say an appraiser for The Nature Conservancy has talked to
them about buying Shelley's allotment, presumably to run cows, but
Johnson won't comment on
"The divisiveness is
what sets everybody back," said Johnson. "If we're going to get
good quality riparian systems, the only way to do it is for
everyone to work together."
Friends of the Gila's Smith acknowledged that while consensus
politics makes good neighbors, it doesn't protect the ecosystem,
and in the long run it would be best to get the ranchers
"Why is telling the truth
considered divisive?" Schock said. "The Nature Conservancy is
supporting status quo grazing at a deficit. They're not looking at
Ohmart, Schock's technical adviser,
called her a gutsy and dedicated
"When she grabs for
something, she doesn't stop until she gets what she wants. Sure,
she grates people a little bit, but maybe you need to do that."
In a town that includes
people she dismisses as "hand-holding, New Age types," Schock
proudly wears the hard-liner badge. She likes to say that ranchers
should be treated like alcoholics and be forced to confront their
addiction to federal subsidies.
Secretary Bruce Babbitt preaches consensus, Schock says
confrontation is healthy. A state Sierra Club executive committee
member until her recent resignation, she contends some local
environmentalists who won't speak out have no "balls." At times,
she'd rather deal with the upfrontness of
"What everyone wants
is to make everybody happy, and everybody isn't going to be happy
over this," she said. "What is an honorable solution? To confront
the reality of a situation and deal with it effectively. You can't
compromise with reality."
This summer, tension
on the Diamond Bar will only increase. While the Forest Service's
long-term proposal calls for reducing cattle numbers to as low as
600, the Forest Service is allowing Laney to run 1,000 cows this
year while officials prepare the final environmental impact
statement. The agency's interim management plan has cattle on every
pasture on the allotment, including areas that would normally be
rested this year and those, like Black Canyon, that the Forest
Service recommended for permanent closure to
The Forest Service operating plan is
already showing some holes. In February, 66 bulls had to be removed
from the allotment when the grazing along the Gila River's upper
East Fork hit critical habitat for the threatened loach minnow
"pretty hard," according to Ranger Engel. Gila Watch has brought in
a team of hydrologists to conduct comprehensive stream studies to
"blow the Forest Service out of the water in court" and prove that
current grazing management is not improving the East Fork,
according to Schock.
Her group will host a
summit of fisheries experts and environmental attorneys in June to
devise a legal strategy to "force the Forest Service into
compliance with their own recommendations," Schock said. And her
cohorts have prodded the Forest Service into a joint willow
planting effort on Black Canyon and the East Fork to stabilize
collapsing streambanks, although, says Schock, "they'll probably
just be lunch for cows." n
Tony Davis reports for the Albuquerque Tribune. This story was paid
for by the High Country News Research Fund.
For more information or to comment,
* Gila Watch, Box 309, Silver City, NM
* Greater Gila Biodiversity Project, Box
742, Silver City, NM 88062
* Coalition of
Arizona-New Mexico Counties for Stable Economic Growth, P.O. Box
195, Glenwood, NM 88039;
* U.S. Forest Service,
Mimbres District Ranger Station, P.O. Box 79, Mimbres, NM
* U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
Ecological Services Office, 3616 W. Thomas Road, Suite 6, Phoenix,