The first half of Chilton Williamson’s September essay, “Circuit Rider,” is a joy to read. The second half is also well written, but has no reality to it. The idea that Catron County, New Mexico, is fighting for some grounded life against federal interference founders if the facts are known.
The facts are that Catron County long ago abused and used up its trees and grass. There is nothing left to log, and the cows are down to eating the dirt and hanging out in stream bottoms, waiting for a blade of grass to push above ground. Present residents of Catron County are simply fighting the feds and environmentalists for the right to burn what’s left of the furniture. As for it being a remnant of the Old West, that’s a joke: statistics show that the county has had a huge in-migration, and most leaders of the county movement are newcomers to the county.
The truth of the inland West, and not just of Catron County, is that the place is an ecological mess—a 1930’s dust bowl without the blowing dust. Because ranchers, loggers, and dam builders have abused the place for so many decades, it can no longer economically sustain life on the land without federal subsidies. It is why the West’s senators are more socialist than the Soviets ever were. It is also why ranches have sold off to newcomers the way the fender and fuel pump are sold off a car that will no longer run. The West is being parted out just like that junked car. All those Californians driving through Colorado and New Mexico and Utah whom Williamson mocked are simply on the lookout for an empty piece of exhausted land on which to build their dream house. They’ll find plenty. Westerners have been hard at work for decades.
Publisher, High Country News
Mr. Williamson Replies:
Catron County is a red flag, isn’t it? My friend Ed Marston is not usually so choleric.
Marston claims that there is nothing left to log in Catron County. But a forest fire there last summer in an area where a timber sale had been denied on account of the 28 owl “core” zones it included destroyed 9-11 million board feet. The adjacent area, which did not burn, remains a fine stand of timber. (Of course, if the owls have relocated there, it can’t be logged either.) As for grass, I have observed numerous blades of it in my several visits to Catron County. According to a recent report, late summer rains following years of drought have improved the range significantly.
Marston’s statistics showing huge emigration to Catron County are puzzling, as the county has lost considerable population in the last few years. He may have in mind, however, the arrival of militia types who believed the propaganda spread by environmentalists regarding the county-rights movement, and, concluding that Catron County is a congenial home for outlaws and anarchists, moved there. In fact, they play no role in the lawful confrontation between Reserve, NM, and Washington, D.C. If the three commissioners are outsiders, they are probably Somalis as well. Hugh B. McKean’s family has lived in Catron County for more than a hundred years and John Hand for 40 years, while Cados Livingston is a fourth or fifth generation resident. Danny Fryar, the county manager, also goes back several generations, and Jim Catron, the commissioners’ legal counsel, is—as I mentioned in my piece—a descendant of New Mexico’s pioneers. So much for the joke about the county movement’s leaders being newcomers to Catron County.
Marston’s description of the intermountain West as a dust bowl destroyed by Westerners is a howling exaggeration, and a sweeping generalization as well. But even if it weren’t, why single out Westerners for criticism of their flawed stewardship? Have Northeasterners, Southerners, or Midwesterners done any better at preserving their own portions of the country? And what about “all those Californians,” fleeing the once-lovely state they have managed to ruin in a couple of generations? Like locusts, they are moving on to find someplace else to consume. If the West is such a mess, why do environmentalists want to live here? The answer is, the West is still the West, and the environmentalist movement represents an even greater takeover attempt than the already slackening migration from California.
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