Free speech can be costly in New Mexico


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

In southwest New Mexico, it's a struggle to be green. In 1991, wolf advocate Pamela Brown tried to show her video, Wolf Teacher, at schools in Silver City and neighboring towns. It mixes cuddly scenes of wolves licking kids' faces and prancing down beaches with stories of how ranchers tried to exterminate them.

But this is a place where ranchers, environmentalists and the federal government have fought over whether to reintroduce the wolf in the Blue Primitive Area straddling the New Mexico-Arizona border to the west.

In the small ranching town of Glenwood, three ranchers' wives stopped Brown at the schoolhouse door, she recalled. The women today deny that they physically barred Brown, 50, but after some haggling, the video was never shown.

Rancher Bob McKeen, whose daughter-in-law taught at the school, said the video failed to show the wolf's killer side. Mary Beth Britton, the teacher who had brought Brown in, later wrote her that "we heard money talking today.

"These same women actively promote the beef industry in our school district. Campaigning for their survival seems to be acceptable, while doing the same thing for the wolf is not," she wrote.

Newspaper editor Kate Keely felt the ranchers' sting, too. From 1988 to 1992, she put out a bi-weekly newspaper, Wilderness Outlook, that mixed environmentalism with community news, tales of camping out and personal histories. While it was hardly a call to arms, rancher-county commissioner Hugh McKeen hinted that an advertising boycott would be appropriate. Sometimes, 100 copies of the paper would disappear from a news rack, racks were torn up, and a big grocery chain stopped carrying it.

"I have nothing against any of these people," says Keely. "I was trying to be a forum for both sides. They figured out I was the enemy because I am an environmentalist." Keely is now a second-grade teacher.

In spring 1993, Beverly Malo, a clerk at a local petroleum distributor, lost her job to rancher pressure after she wrote a letter on company stationery to protest some anti-environmentalist ads on the radio.

Several of those ads more clearly pointed at Susan Schock and her group Gila Watch, since they exhorted listeners not to tolerate "third-party interference" on the Diamond Bar.

The radio ads likened environmentalists to "pagan nature worshippers" and animal rights activists to Nazis. One traced the roots of modern environmentalism to Eastern mysticism. Another ad blasted environmentalists for stepping in and objecting to the "marriage" on the Diamond Bar between the Forest Service and ranchers. The sponsors were a livestock-mining interest coalition called Minuteman Media.

"Many of these environmental leaders aren't just demanding better conservation practices, they are seeking a total transformation of society," an ad said. "One that seeks to destroy or totally restructure our current economic system and replace it with mystic hope, or in some cases, no hope at all."

Outraged, listener Malo faxed a letter to radio station KSCQ, saying, "The music has turned sour with the garbage of Minuteman Press." When word got back to her boss, she was fired.

KSCQ owner John Alsip, whose family is in ranching, strongly defended the ads, calling environmentalists "eco-Nazis." "I hate their damned guts," he said.

"They don't care about riparian habitats," Alsip said, "they don't care about how many spotted owls they save. All they care about is getting the cows off public land."

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