Catron County's politics heat up as its land goes bankrupt

  • Catron County

    Diane Sylvain
  • Downtown Reserve, N.M., has not changed much since the early 1980s

    Brian Walski
  • Busted flat in Quemado, New Mexico

    Michael P. Berman
  • Cheap John Lake in northern Catron County

    Michael P. Berman
  • The Stone timber mill in Reserve, N.M.

    Michael P. Berman
  • Young trees on the Gila National Forest

    Michael P. Berman

GLENWOOD, N.M. - In 1962, Hugh B. McKeen's rancher parents brought him back to their native Catron County after 15 years in crowded, hectic Southern California. Catron County was then, and still is, everything that urban America is not. Lying four to five hours by car from Albuquerque and Phoenix, it has no local newspapers, no radio or television stations, no video rental stores, no computer shops. Instead of services and media, it has space. Catron County covers more square miles - about 7,800 - than Delaware or Connecticut, but has fewer people - about 2,700 - than many subdivisions.

"This was the most peaceful place on earth," recalls McKeen, who is now a Catron County commissioner. "It didn't matter how much money you made. Nobody bothered you. You didn't have the Army Corps of Engineers getting after you about the river. You had no Endangered Species Act. You had a very good life, free of regulations."

For the past five years, McKeen and other local ranchers and loggers have caught the nation's attention with their attempts to return to a regulation-free existence. Catron was the county independence movement's pioneer, the first to pass ordinances resisting federal control over federal land within its boundaries (HCN, 2/24/92).

The county's message has been clear: Get the federal government out of people's lives. The county can do a better job in managing national forests and other public land than any federal bureaucrat. Any federal action that diminishes the value of public land's use - ranching, logging and mining - is a "taking" requiring financial compensation.

In support of this anti-federal blueprint, county officials hark back to the speeches of the Founding Fathers, to the U.S. Constitution, to constitutional amendments protecting individual rights, to the U.S. Civil Rights Act, and to Spanish and Mexican customs.

The rhetoric has been followed by a slew of county ordinances: No wolves, mountain lions or bears can be released into the wild. The county must consent or at least be consulted before federal agencies can regulate the use of public land. Grazing on public land is defined as a private property right; private property rights are defined as civil rights. Violate the law and you can be fined up to $10,000. So far, the county has not charged anyone with violating these ordinances.

James Catron, the county attorney who wrote many of the ordinances, says that he and Catron County's residents personify the frontier ethic portrayed by James Fenimore Cooper and other 19th-century writers. Forty percent of the county's residents are of British descent, compared to 27 percent in the entire United States, and Catron says they came from a culture that despised government and absentee landlords.

"The British frontier culture was forged over 700 years of constant warfare with the British and Scottish monarchs," he says. "When these people see government getting strong enough to push them off their lands, destroy their culture and their livelihoods, when these people see the federal government protecting owls and fish instead of humans, they tend to fight back."

Recently, Catron wrote a column in the pro-ranching weekly Hatch, N.M., Courier that pushed the county's vision another step.

Imagine, he wrote, having 50 American republics instead of 50 states, each with a government tailored to the local cultures. New York state could be home for gay rights and gun control advocates. Utah could have polygamy. "Eco-preservationists' could govern Florida, and loggers could plant and chop trees in Oregon.

"Interstate issues now dominated by Washington would be handled by voluntary compacts between state legislatures, and the executive branch would concern itself only with foreign affairs," Catron wrote. "If it sounds like a dream, remember that it was the dream of the Founding Fathers."

Recently, Catron wrote a column in the pro-ranching weekly Courier in Hatch, N.M., that pushed the county's vision another step.

Imagine, he wrote, having 50 American republics instead of 50 states, each with a government tailored to the local culture. New York state could be home for gay rights and gun control advocates. Utah could have polygamy. "Eco-preservationists" could govern Florida, and loggers could plant and chop trees in Oregon.

"Interstate issues now dominated by Washington would be handled by voluntary compacts between state legislatures, and the executive branch would concern itself only with foreign affairs," Catron wrote. "If it sounds like a dream, remember that it was the dream of the Founding Fathers."

It may sound off-the-wall, but it has great power: Catron County has sued, so far successfully, to force the feds to hold off on protecting threatened fish habitat until they study how that would affect the county's environment and economy. Using intense lobbying and threats of violence, it has forced the federal government to repeatedly back away from plans to reduce cattle numbers.

And this year, its ordinances survived a federal court challenge brought by environmentalists. The judge threw out the lawsuit, saying the critics lacked standing, and didn't rule on the suit's constitutional issues.

Are these victories for descendants of hardy pioneers and fourth-generation ranchers whose Catron County roots date back to the 1880s? Is this proof that the genetic material that wrote the Magna Carta lives on in New Mexico? Not quite.

Fifty-three percent of Catron County's population was born outside New Mexico, compared to 47 percent for the entire state, federal census records show. Thirty-two percent of Catron's population has lived in the county for less than five years, compared to 23 percent of all New Mexicans. Several of the county movement's most active leaders - rancher-miner and Coalition of Arizona-New Mexico Counties founder Dick Manning, coalition spokesman Howard Hutchinson, rancher Bob Fisher - were born out of state.

Independence also goes only so far. Catron County is a national leader in attracting food stamps, Social Security and other transfer payments from the federal government. Residents took in $3,224 per person in such payments in 1994, census records show. That's $500 per person higher than the national norm and $800 per person higher than the New Mexico average.

Those payments have flowed into the county partly because its population is slightly older than average, and partly because it is poor. In 1990, 25 percent of all residents lived below the poverty line, compared to 20 percent of all New Mexicans. Per capita income was $8,537, nearly $3,000 below New Mexico's average, which ranks 47th nationally. Ten percent of all Catron households didn't have plumbing, compared to 3 percent of all New Mexicans. And the county's unemployment rate of 10.8 percent in July 1995 was virtually twice the national rate.

The land played out

The poverty has a simple explanation. The county has always lived off grass, trees, and minerals, and today those natural resources are in terrible shape.

Anglos started arriving here in the 1850s, drawn by the area's broad bands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, its gentle hillsides and grassy plains.

Post-Civil War Southern expatriates, small miners and ranchers from neighboring states and big-money interests from Chicago and New York all came in search of wealth. For a century, they found it. Southwest New Mexico's timber stands were so thick that an 1851 surveyor wrote that "so rich a timber country does not exist between the Mississippi Valley and the Pacific except in the mountainous district of Upper California."

The grass was thick enough to attract money from ranching investors from back East, and the gold and silver veins in the Mogollon Mining District near Glenwood generated 70 percent of New Mexico's total gold and silver production from 1908 to 1917.

But the last of 25 sawmills that once encircled the Reserve area closed three years ago. Low cattle prices, foreign competition, drought and disappearing grassland have forced the vast majority of Catron ranchers to take second jobs. McKeen, for example, subdivides private land for homes. Today, 25,700 head of cattle graze the Gila National Forest - a third of the number that grazed there in the 1920s and 1930s.

Not a single mine operates. The New Mexico Bureau of Mines estimates that the ore base is one-third of what it was at the turn of the century. The only recent mining operation, run by county movement leader Manning, closed in the 1980s due to low silver prices. His efforts to reopen it recently have resulted in legal and environmental disputes with the U.S. government.

Attempts at economic renewal inevitably involve the federal government. It owns about two-thirds of Catron County, compared to 32 percent of all New Mexico. Government accounts for nearly 40 percent of all jobs. The federal government pumps $6,500 into the local economy annually for every resident.

"They are a welfare state and they don't like that," said Lee Otteni, a former Glenwood District Forest Service ranger who now works for the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. "They are fiercely independent people who cannot be independent."

Like their counterparts all over the West, Catron's ranchers take federal subsidies - about $1,000 annually each or $90,000 total - to build fences and watering tanks. Together with their neighbors in adjoining Grant County, they have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of federally supplied emergency feed annually during droughts, and thousands more in flood relief during floods. They have received flood and drought payments, sometimes in the same year, although drought payments were suspended by the 1996 Farm Bill. But almost to a person, the ranchers say they'd give up the subsidies if they could control the federal land and get rid of all federal regulations.

"They fully understand that for every government benefit, a liberty must be surrendered," county attorney Catron says.

The county's environment is in the same sad shape as the economy. Since Anglos arrived in southwest New Mexico in the 1850s, ranchers, hunters, miners, trappers and federal agents have eliminated the grizzly bear, the Mexican wolf, the jaguar, Merriam's elk, the black-footed ferret and the river otter.

Last year, Arizona State University zoologist W.L. Minckley wrote that the Gila River Basin - which includes the San Francisco River slashing north-south through Catron - is the only riparian area in the world where every native fish species has been extirpated or has been listed or recommended for listing as endangered or threatened.

Like the rivers, the country's watersheds are in bad shape. Since the last century, juniper tree densities on the Gila forest have increased as cattle grazing and fire suppression kept the grass from growing, leading to erosion and hurting water quality. The number of big ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees in the forest has dropped sharply in the same period.

Ranchers and loggers blame the feds and the environmentalists for many of these problems. The federal government admits it's partly at fault for not heeding, through the years, the pleas of many locals and environmentalists to let fires burn.

Enforcement of grazing rules that might have protected grasslands was also weak; the Forest Service's Chuck Sundt noticed a "regulatory void" when he came from Montana in 1989 to take over as Glenwood district ranger.

But many local residents, and especially county leaders, deny that they're in a natural resource crisis. They say they're in a regulatory crisis. They blame the Fish and Wildlife Service for listing the owl, Gila trout, southwestern willow flycatcher and the spiked dace and loach minnow as threatened or endangered. They say "Neo-Nazi" federal officials harass people by driving around county roads in law enforcement vehicles. They blame environmentalists who sue to protect birds and fish and to stop ranchers from building livestock watering tanks in the wilderness.

For rancher McKeen, it almost seems as though environmentalists use the Gila National Forest as a "testing ground. They shut our sawmill down and they're trying to take our grazing rights away."

But some numbers indicate that Catron County's decline dates back to before environmentalists fired up their lawsuits. From 1980 to 1990, the number of ranching and other agricultural jobs in Catron County dropped 28 percent and the number of timber-related manufacturing jobs dropped 53 percent. Largely on their own initiative, between 1984 and 1994 Catron County ranchers reduced their total cattle numbers from 29,100 to 25,700 - far less than their permits allowed them to run. And while the Forest Service has slowly started cutting cattle numbers in the past two years, they granted 14 Catron ranchers a combined 650-head increase in permitted numbers from 1984 to 1994.

"Those people in Catron County are looking for the wrong place to blame," said Susan Schock, a Silver City environmental activist whose Gila Watch group has battled Catron County since 1992. "They're trashing the land. They won't diversify their economy. They think everything can be fixed with more money and more manipulation."

Some researchers back East see the county's plight as part of an inevitable, Westwide decline of the public-lands economy. Calvin Beale, a U.S. Agriculture Department population analyst who has studied rural economies for four decades, said that a drop in natural-resource jobs was inevitable because improved technology and productivity in logging and ranching have made it easier for those industries to survive on fewer people.

Frank Popper, a Rutgers University urban studies professor who has studied rural communities and Western land-use trends, links Catron County's present revolt to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s and the efforts by previous Interior secretaries to sell or give away to the states large chunks of public land in the 1910s, 1920s and 1950s. All these efforts fizzled.

"Ideologically, these folks in the West want the land, but economically, they don't know what to do with it," Popper said. "It doesn't follow that putting public land in the private sector helps when the economy is declining." Popper calls the notion that privatization can spark economic revival a "recurring libertarian fantasy."

"These are really lovely people, who represent an older, more virtuous America where someone who is willing to bust their butt can make a reasonably middle-class living in the cattle industry or agriculture," Popper says. "It's sort of a breathtaking attempt to restore something that isn't going to be restored."

Rusting mill is the symbol

Reserve, population 900, hardly looks like the breeding ground of a revolution. It has two main streets, little traffic, no traffic lights, a few motels and restaurants, a bar, two general stores and some boarded-up buildings. Business is slow on good days. The National Association of Counties lists Reserve as an "endangered community."

The town of Reserve wears the county's troubles like a badge, sitting as it does four hours from a major city and surrounded by hills and forests that no longer provide jobs.

More than any single event, the shutdown of Stone Forest Industries' sawmill in 1990 fueled Catron County's and the West's anti-environmentalist revolution. You can't go to a rally in southwest New Mexico without a speaker referring to "the mill." One hundred people lost their jobs in 1990, after the federal government started restricting timber-cutting in the area to protect the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

"I've got at least 30 friends in this community who are starving to death because they can't find work," says Carl Livingston, a Catron County commissioner and logging contractor in his mid-30s whose work was tied to the mill for many years until the 1990 shutdown. "I'm approached four or five times a week by people asking me where they can find jobs."

But it was only a decade ago that logging companies were clearing 30 million board-feet a year of timber from the Gila Forest. In the late 1980s, the Forest Service started restricting timber-cutting to protect the owl, after environmentalists sued to get it listed as threatened. By 1995, cutting had dropped to 1 million board-feet annually.

The mill cutbacks have forced Livingston, for instance, to drive logging and cattle feed trucks in four states to make a living. The cutbacks have even forced Forest Service officials to rearrange job titles. Longtime Gila National Forest timber staffer Mike Boyle today is called a timber-recreation staffer, but he can still talk about the days of 15 years ago when timber was king.

"Timber drove the train and everyone else rode along with it," Boyle said. "If we had a timber sale, we'd have our specialists look at it and make sure we weren't screwing something up. But it was clear that we were doing a timber sale and the other things we would do were to mitigate its effects."

Until the late 1980s "overstory removal," a modified form of clear-cutting, was the rule in Southwestern forests. Foresters would wait until a young stand of small trees had appeared at the base of an older stand of big trees. Then the big trees would go.

"We would leave a few big trees, but our direction was to get those suckers out of there," Boyle recalled.

But in the late 1980s, environmentalists Peter Galvin and Kieran Suckling, who had moved to the Reserve area from out of state to count owls as Forest Service field biologists, starting pushing for federal protection of the owl.

"I'd go to a timber sale before it was cut and walk around, then I'd go back and see what happened to the beautiful forest, and it was completely trashed," Suckling recalled. "All the big trees were cut and the ground was ripped up by tractors. It looked like a war zone."

All over the Gila forest, big trees were declining in numbers, just as they had in the Pacific Northwest. By 1995, old-growth trees made up less than 10 percent of what was cut in most timber sales. Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs of sizes that were considered average or below-average 90 years ago are now classified as old growth, the biggest and oldest trees on the forest.

Financial problems drove the Reserve mill toward extinction at least as rapidly as the owl did. Stone Container Inc., the Chicago-based paper conglomerate that owns mill operator Stone Forest, was heavily leveraged with junk bonds in the late 1980s. In the year before the mill closed, Stone's paper prices and stock values tumbled as the American economy plunged into recession. Financial publications such as Barron's and Money Magazine warned that Stone's cash flow was collapsing and that it wasn't a good investment.

Gary Yantis, Stone Forest's regional timber manager, acknowledges today that economics helped close the Reserve mill. But if more timber could have been cut, the company would have kept it open, he said.

"There's nothing that will shut down a sawmill more quickly than not having a log to cut," he said.

But even Catron County Commissioner Livingston has few kind words for Stone Forest Industries. He says its "mismanagement" was 40 to 50 percent of the reason for the mill shutdown.

Last year, Livingston and a partner hatched a plan to buy the mill from Stone, and to cut 9 to 10 million board-feet a year in small trees. But the Forest Service refused to guarantee that the timber would become available in the current environmental climate. Moreover, Stone, wanting to keep its options open, refused to sell.

Loggers, timber companies, environmentalists and the Forest Service all agree that thinning is needed to restore a forest that's choking on smaller trees and threatened with catastrophic fires. But those trees can't be removed until the legal issues are resolved that have stopped all Southwestern logging since 1995, the year a federal court injunction was issued.

Rangelands are also under pressure. "The grazing land, some of it is as productive today as in the 1960s. It hasn't degraded at all," said former Glenwood District Ranger Otteni, who now works for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in Washington, D.C. "But in the Glenwood area, that soil has never been very productive. There is a lot of national forest there that probably should never have been grazed to start with."

According to 1995 records obtained by the Colorado-based Land and Water Fund, Forest Service studies and range surveys found that about 58 percent of the Gila National Forest's grazing allotments scored "D."

Lowest of any forest's scores in the agency's Southwestern region, the Gila's ratings mean that many allotments don't meet national forest plans and environmental laws and regulations. Other federal records, obtained by the Southwest Center for Biodiversity, warn of a pattern of problems in numerous Glenwood-area allotments: poor water and livestock distribution, juniper invasions, lack of maintenance in fences and other improvements, and general overgrazing.

Streamsides are hurting. Forest Service studies of about 25 percent of the Gila forest's riparian areas found slightly more than half are in unsatisfactory condition.

The juniper invasions seem even more troubling. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Forest Service's usual response to invasions of these trees was to chain and bulldoze them, often at great expense and with little success, officials now admit.

"Back in the 1950s, we pushed (knocked down junipers on) 70,000 acres to try to create more forage for livestock," said former Glenwood ranger Sundt, who now works as a range scientist in Silver City. "For a short time that was fine, but the ranchers and the agency didn't practice good range management at that time. Now, most of the junipers have come back."

Sundt thinks a more sophisticated approach to tree clearing could work. "If they turned me loose and gave me a blank checkbook, I could clean that country up. But it costs a lot of money and it takes commitment," he said recently. "I think they could do that in Catron County, but I don't think they would. It's too political up there. It sounds a lot better for them to do all that hoorahing and bellyaching."

The ranchers have other problems, such as elk, whose numbers have mushroomed since the New Mexico Game and Fish Department re-introduced them in the 1950s. Elk compete with cattle for grass, although cattle are allotted up to 90 percent of the forage, according to the Gila Forest Plan.

Finally, ranchers must cope with a third straight year of extremely dry weather. After 10 years of above-average rainfall, it could be the start of a decade of drought, says New Mexico State University range scientist Jerry Holechek. Since wet weather tends to encourage overstocking, Holechek says the drought "may cause the whole system to crash." This spring was so dry that ranchers removed 40-50 percent of cattle grazing on the Gila National Forest. Last fall, there was a 20 percent increase in elk hunting permits; another increase of at least that size is possible this fall.

What does Catron County plan to do? A county plan, which would require congressional approval, calls for a 20-year pilot program giving the county control of all federal facilities, improvements and equipment.

The proposal contends that the federal government, by refusing to recognize "private rights' to federal land, is becoming "more of a planner and a controller of people than a servant." Timber-cutting would resume, targeting small trees. The sale of wood products and grazing fees would help raise funds to run the program.

Under the plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be powerless to veto Catron County's ideas. Endangered species recovery could not hurt "local customs, culture and economic stability." One novel idea under discussion among county leaders: to let the endangered Mexican wolf return to Catron County if the county can control the wolf program and the federal land.

"This will take money to run the program, but they should be able to more than pay for it with increased timber sales," said Al Schneberger, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. "If they got management of the forest for its overall health again, they could get in there and thin and burn and create more forage and wildlife habitat. They'd have more and bigger elk and cattle, and they could stand a few wolves."

But some county residents say that the economy won't come back until the leaders take a new course. For years, they've heard talk of building dams, industrial parks, wood-pellet manufacturing plants and other schemes. Most of these ideas have foundered because of the same remoteness that draws some people to live there.

From back East, Popper and Beale agree that in today's post-NAFTA era of intense foreign competition and low cattle prices, it's going to be hard to raise the capital needed to make ranching work again on a large scale.

"If I thought these folks were interested in tourism or the sort of preservation that brings tourism, I might think that they're onto something," said Rutgers' Popper. "But they don't want to find ways to reconcile preservation with tourism. They want to get rid of that stuff, and that ultimately makes them backward-looking."

Bob Moore, a veteran forestry consultant who lives in the hills near the mining town of Mogollon, says he's in the same position as Catron County. He plans to move into a new career. Catron County, he says, should do the same thing.

"They should get away from some of the antagonism they have toward the changes around here, and drop some of the lawsuits they've tried," Moore said. "They're spinning their wheels. They're putting their energy in the wrong places."

Tony Davis, former Albuquerque Tribune reporter, now works for the Statesman-Journal in Salem, Oregon.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- The County Attorney

- The Businessperson

- The Forest Ranger

- The Psychologist

- The Country Doctor


Hi there, reader.

We hope you found value in the article, above.

Before you go, I’d like to ask you for a few dollars of support.

For more than 50 years, High Country News has been funded by readers just like you: citizens of the world who are curious and passionate about the West.

I’m guessing you are the kind of person who stays abreast of news and takes time to keep informed about issues that matter to you. As such, I’m sure you’re well aware that journalism around the globe is in real trouble.

You can help our team of independent writers, editors, illustrators and photojournalists stay focused on the important stories with your tax-deductible donation today. Even $4 – or the cost of a small latte – makes a difference to us.


We hope you’ll return to this website again, and read as much as your tough or tender heart can consume. And you’ll feel better knowing you’ve invested in fair-minded, in-depth journalism.

We need you now, more than ever.

Onward, with courage and resolve!
Greg Hanscom
Executive Director/Publisher

High Country News Classifieds
    Job Title: Wyoming Climate Coordinator Reports to: Energy and Climate Policy Director Type of Work: Full-time, hourly, but willing to consider part-time Classification: Non-exempt Start...
    Colorado West Land Trust seeks a Director of Development to lead the organization's fundraising efforts. Western Colorado is home to Colorado's fruit and wine industry,...
    NON-PROFIT DIRECTOR If you are looking for meaningful work, this is the opportunity to join a small and exciting nonprofit organization led by an engaged...
    High Country News is seeking an intern to serve on its award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. The Indigenous Affairs Intern will dive deep into important stories...
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.
    Central Colorado Conservancy is an accredited land trust and community-based conservation organization based in Salida, CO. Our mission is to protect the land, waters and...
    Welcome to your new tranquil oasis in Montana. This beautiful 2-bedroom home FSBO is just an hour's drive to the east entrance of Glacier National...
    Areas of Responsibility: The Development Director collaborates with the Executive Director, other HEAL Utah staff, board, and supporters to continue building one of Utah's most...
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is hiring an organized and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to join our Marketing and Communications Team. The Digital Engagement...
    Welcome to Lost Creek Sanctuary... a true hidden gem in the heart of the Palouse. 1900 square feet, the main house is warm and charming,...
    Vibrant, financially successful 1,100 print run, community-focused subscription newspaper in beautiful Pacific Northwest Washington seeks owner/s. It is time to retire. Now, your Norman Rockwell-like...
    Job Opening Announcement: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Pacific Northwest, ideally in Eugene, Oregon, Portland, Oregon,...
    The Head of Project Management will oversee our project execution to ensure that we are providing our partners around the world with the field data...
    Trustees for Alaska is the only nonprofit environmental law firm founded and based in Alaska. We are seeking a Legal Director, full-time based in Anchorage....
    The Fund for People in Parks seeks leader to identify, develop, fund, and facilitate high-impact projects in western National Parks. Remote position with some travel....
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is a women-led national grassroots organization that engages and inspires activism to preserve and protect wilderness and wild lands. The...
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is a women-led national grassroots organization that engages and inspires activism to preserve and protect wilderness and wild lands. Position...
    The Grassroots Leadership (Director) oversees the training, guidance, and support of volunteer Broadband Leaders. (Broadbands are women-led grassroots chapters, with 40+ across the country.) They...
    We would like to invite you to participate in a 60-minute focus group to help us enhance the New Mexico Courts website ( Our aim...