The flier's drawings were tiny - a deer, a fish, a wild turkey and a cow - but its message was brassy.
Regardless of your sport, if you enjoy being able to utilize public
lands, your rights are in DANGER! Look what happened to 194 miles
of the Frisco and Gila
"Two minnows and a
group of environmental extremists have closed these areas to human
activity, including fishing, hunting, picnicking, simple
sightseeing and more!'
The modern-day Paul
Revere who wrote this was the Silver City, N.M., chapter of People
For The West!, the Colorado-based arm of Western extractive
interests. But the flier, from a group that loves to accuse
environmentalists of blowing problems out of proportion, is dead
People For The West! distributed the
flier in Silver City to drum up opposition to protecting a pair of
tiny minnows that live in the Gila, San Francisco and other rivers
in southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona. This flier is one of
many tactics used by ranchers, mining interests and sportsmen that
have turned a controversy over endangered species into a back-alley
So far, not a mile of river has been
closed, even though the federal government has declared the minnows
threatened species and declared much of those rivers critical
habitat for them. Even People For The West!'s use of 194 miles is
misleading. That represents the total river miles set aside in the
entire Southwest, not just in the Gila and San Francisco
But simple facts aren't getting very far
in Silver City these days, not in an atmosphere in which government
meetings have become standing-room-only shouting matches. Opponents
of species protection more than once have turned to political
pressure and sheer harassment to make their case, and
anti-environmentalist rhetoric is outstripping
The objects of the anger? The spike dace
and loach minnow, two slender fish species unknown until recently
to all but the most dedicated ecologists and fishermen. Also on the
local hate list is the Southwestern willow flycatcher, a six-inch
specimen with grayish back and wings and a pale yellow belly, on
the verge of being declared endangered.
this fight is a free-swinging, anti-federalist group calling itself
the Coalition of Arizona Counties for Stable Economic Growth. It
represents 14 counties in southwest New Mexico and southeast
Its $50,000 annual budget comes from
those county governments and the timber, livestock, mining and
sportsmen's interests who fear they stand to lose if the endangered
species win. The coalition's rhetoric is not as extreme as that of
many of its supporters, but the group has been at the forefront of
legal efforts to block
"The way the
Endangered Species Act has been administered has been typical
bureaucratic malfeasance," said Howard Hutchinson, the coalition's
media spokesman. "It's bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake."
Hutchinson is an affable organic farmer living
in Glenwood, about an hour's drive north of Silver City. Hutchinson
was once an Earth First! ally and still considers himself a friend
of Dave Foreman, founder of the Earth First!
At heart a libertarian, Hutchinson has
shed much of his environmentalist skin, but he still professes some
environmental beliefs. For instance, he says that saving endangered
species, can help promote local tourism and other businesses. He
says he simply wants to ensure that the feds work more closely with
locals in protecting
"When you involve the
local citizenry, you've got people who are living in that
environment 24 hours a day - in some cases for their whole life,"
Hutchinson said. "When these people are ignored, you end up with
decisions that don't benefit the species and in most cases have a
harmful effect on the economy."
coalition typically works closely with and represents more outfront
anti-environmentalists. Backers include People For The West! and
ranchers who see these species as a nuisance to their
Organic farmer Rusty Dobkins, who
lives in Cliff, north of Silver City, met this hostility head on at
a recent Silver City meeting on the flycatcher that was packed with
cowboys. When he stood up to propose that the feds buy up ranchland
to turn it into a nature preserve, a handful of adversaries seated
behind him cried, "Get a rope!'
Later at the
same meeting, bearded environmentalist Rex Johnson, a trout
fisherman active in the group Gila Watch, stood up and joked,
"Let's hear it for extinction!'
contingent in the crowd cheered.
Even a People
For The West! spokesman has felt the sting. Mechanic David
Wilguess, the Silver City chapter's new president, reported getting
33 threatening phone calls, with many callers saying they'd "kick
my ass," after he suggested at a group meeting that an
environmentalist in the crowd, Gila Watch's Michael Sauber,
deserved a chance to
"Desperate people do
desperate things," Hutchinson said. "People are already being hit
economically, and there is nothing on the horizon but a long parade
of other hits coming down the road."
same groups who today push for "balance' - mining and ranching
interests - stand accused by environmentalists and some scientists
of land-use practices that denuded and dried up streams and lowered
Today, some of those same
interests downplay the effects of their practices and seek to pin
the blame on floods, federal fire prevention efforts or other
forces. They frame the issue as jobs versus birds and fish, and
they duck questions about whether endangered species even deserve
"I don't think
there's a clear answer, yes or no," said Cathy Jewell, who until
recently was president of the Silver City area People For The West!
"You've got to look at it on a case-by-case basis."
Defending her group's inaccurate flier, she
said, "It's a flier, not a legal document in any way, shape or
More blunt is John Fowler, a crusty,
60-year-old rancher and logger who was local People For The West!
president before Jewell. His sawmill, lying along the grasslands of
the Mimbres River valley east of Silver City, has suffered hits
from the spotted owl listing, he says, and he's afraid the minnows
will take the profit out of his ranching
While many ranchers say they want to
restore streambeds their cows have chewed up, Fowler freely admits
that he thinks the willow trees along the river, which many
biologists prize for supporting bird life, are a
"Willows are bad for
everything. The trees need to be thinned out so other trees can
grow. You let them go, they can get so thick, you can't even walk
to the river," said Fowler as he dragged on a cigar in his wood
frame house across the street from his sawmill. "We don't let that
As for the loach minnow, Fowler
scoffs. "It's good for bait and nothing else." Another endangered
fish living in the area, the Gila trout, is "worthless, nothing but
a bunch of bones."
A few days after he spoke at
the local People For The West! meeting, environmentalist Michael
Sauber showed up at Fowler's sawmill to buy $15 worth of wood bark
and fencing. A employee turned him away: "We need jobs more than we
need your money."
A tool to
The balancing act between rivers and
jobs gets more delicate all the time, as much of the Gila River
looks more like an irrigation ditch every year. The two men most
responsible for making these birds and fish household words in
Silver City freely admit they're using these species as a club to
save the rivers.
They want to restore the dense,
groves of cottonwoods and willows that dominated the streams 150
years ago, and that today are directly linked by federal scientists
to the survival of the birds and fish.
Galvin and Kieran Suckling, biologists in their late 20s, run the
Greater Gila Biodiversity Project out of their home north of
downtown Silver City. They survive on less than $25,000 a year in
foundation grants and use less than revolutionary rhetoric for
people accused in letters to the editor of seeking to overturn
Last year, thanks to
the group's petition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed
listing the flycatcher as endangered. The bird is down to
200-to-500 breeding pairs in five states. Early this year, thanks
to the group's lawsuit, the wildlife service set aside critical
habitat for the minnows.
That decision climaxed
an eight-year battle, in which political pressure from southeast
Arizona and southwest New Mexico extractive interests had kept the
habitat-saving action bottled up. But the Coalition of Counties is
pressing its suit, charging that Fish and Wildlife didn't
adequately study the action's environmental and economic
Galvin and Suckling's goal is "Taking
Back the Gila." On their posters and fund-raising literature are
maps of the little-known landscape they call the Greater Gila
Ecosystem: 10 million acres of pine forests, grasslands and desert
streams in New Mexico and Arizona.
other environmentalists see endangered species as warning signals,
crying that the ecosystem is in trouble. They say human survival is
at stake, too, because humanity depends on rivers for food, water
and recreation as much as any
"How can you have a
cattle operation when there are no plants left to eat?" Galvin
asked. "These people (who fight species protection) are cutting
their own throats."
A century ago, trees and
grasses lined streambanks that today are wastelands. In his 1824
diary, fur trapper James Ohio Pattie described the Gila River near
Silver City as a place where trappers "were much fatigued by the
difficulty of getting through the high grass."
But in 1933, after 50 years of grazing on the Gila, pioneer
conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote an essay portraying a river of
sand bars and cobblestones. He wrote of river bottoms "as bare of
grass, as naked of timber, as the top of a billiard table."
The Gila River is hardly unique. Eighty-five to
95 percent of all Southwest desert streambeds are seriously
degraded, according to Robert Ohmart, an ecologist at Arizona State
University. The U.S. Forest Service has studied 25 percent of the
riparian areas in the Gila Forest, and found that the vast majority
aren't well and that many are in poor shape.
Because their habitats are dying, minnow and flycatcher populations
have gone through the floor, Fish and Wildlife reports show. The
reports paint an endless series of problems. Rivers have been
dammed or carved into artificial channels lined by rock and
concrete. Red shiners and other non-native fish have driven out
native minnows. Cows have chewed up streamside grasses and willow
tree saplings. Sediment washing out of barren streambanks has
smothered fish spawning areas.
grazing have lowered water tables. Dryland juniper trees and rabbit
brush, able to tap deeper into the aquifer, have invaded river
riverfronts once teeming with lusher, water-dependent cottonwoods
And the flycatcher and minnow are
only at the top of Galvin and Suckling's species list. They
consider 154 species in the Gila ecosystem worthy of concern, and
will eventually file petitions seeking protection of one-third of
"What if humanity were
down to a few hundred people?" Suckling said. "We'd be concerned.
But we're down to a few hundred Southwestern willow flycatchers,
and we have people crying Chicken Little because we're trying to
The two moved to Silver City
last year in search of a more hospitable political climate. Their
previous home was much more in harmony with nature - a 17-acre
ranch that came complete with marshy ciénaga. But it lay north
of Silver City in the heart of Catron County, the spiritual heart
of the anti-environmentalist wise-use movement.
Silver City seemed different at
Compared to the rest of the region, Silver
City seemed at first more open to their way of thinking. Its mix of
aging hippies, nouveau yuppies and plain old environmentalists has
countered ranching and mining interests well enough to keep Grant
County out of the Coalition of Counties. Grant, which includes
Silver City, is the only county in southwest New Mexico and
southeast Arizona not to have joined.
change soon. Extractive interests, after several past failures, are
prodding the Grant County Commission to join the coalition and to
help fund its lawsuit against protecting the minnow habitat.
Recently these groups sent commission chairman Bill Harrison a
pointed letter, promising future "action" if the commissioners
didn't play ball.
Signers represented People For
The West!, the Gila Fish and Gun Club, the Grant County Farm Bureau
and the Southwest Water Association. The latter is a water lobbying
group, now headed by Thomas Shelley, a top official with
Phelps-Dodge runs two mines
and a smelter in the Silver City area and is the town's biggest
employer and water user by far. It denies charges by
environmentalists that it is leading the fight against the fish and
"It has been pointed
out to you numerous times that the economy of this county is
threatened," the letter said. "This is our last appeal to you to
take a leadership role to preserve our way of life as we know it in
Seeing the letter as
intimidation, Harrison delayed a commission vote on whether to join
the coalition from mid-March until mid-April. Another commissioner,
Greg Mesa, contends that for the county to pay $2,000 dues to the
coalition would violate the state constitution's prohibition on
donating to private groups.
At a recent hearing,
Mesa, 69, an ex-miner who runs a weekly alternative newspaper,
exploded when coalition backer Thomas Shelley suggested that
Hispanic farmers could be hurt by the endangered species
"Where were you
back in the 1960s, when we Hispanics couldn't use the same
bathrooms as Anglos at the mines?" Mesa asked. "When we couldn't
borrow money from the banks? When we couldn't belong to craft
Harrison, however, sympathizes with
many of the coalition's goals. He contends that protecting fish in
the river could sharply curtail pasture irrigation for grazing and
prevent Phelps-Dodge from diverting river water to extract its
copper. When the river is low, it's possible that nobody could
remove water because that could hurt the fish, he
Of the People For The West! flier,
however, Harrison said, "The misinformation out there is just
awful. I think they should protect these fish, but use common sense
and caution. If there's any adverse impact to people, they should
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service says the fish protection could curtail cattle grazing, but
won't have much effect on most other current practices on the Gila.
Even cows won't feel the heat until the Forest Service starts
consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service on ranchers' annual
Future new water diversions could
be in trouble, but existing ones such as Phelps-Dodge's are
probably safe unless the company needs new federal permits to build
or fix facilities on the river, said Sally Stefferud, a Fish and
Wildlife official in Phoenix.
Fishing for trout
and other non-native fish also could be hurt at some point, because
the minnow's recovery plan calls for discouraging the stocking of
non-native fish and removing the non-natives there now. But
Stefferud also says it won't be technically possible to remove all
of the non-native fish from the river.
acknowledged, however, that many of the locals simply don't trust
the federal government.
know that there are thousands of ways the federal government can
get into things. They're scared. They're afraid something will
happen, but they don't know what."