Don't bother them with facts

  • Silver City, New Mexico

    Michael P. Berman
  • Kieran Suckling and Peter Galvin of the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project

  • John Fowler, former People For The West! president

    Michael P. Berman

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, A struggle for the last grass.

The flier's drawings were tiny - a deer, a fish, a wild turkey and a cow - but its message was brassy.

"ATTENTION SPORTSMEN!! 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 rivers!

"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 wrong.

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 brawl.

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 rivers.

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 truth.

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.

Leading 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 Arizona.

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 protection.

"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! movement.

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 species.

"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."

But the 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 livelihoods.

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!"

A large 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 speak.

"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."

But the 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 water tables.

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 protection.

"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 form."

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 business.

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 nuisance.

"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 happen here."

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 save rivers

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.

Peter 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 industrial civilization.

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 effects.

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.

They and 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 critter.

"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.

Pumping and 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 willows.

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 them.

"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 protect them."

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 first

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.

That could 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 Corp.

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 birds.

"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 Grant County."

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 protection.

"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 unions?"

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 said.

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 be compensated."

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 grazing plans.

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.

She acknowledged, however, that many of the locals simply don't trust the federal government.

"They 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."

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