There are lots of freckles, red hair, and Celtic names in Catron County, New Mexico. Though almost everyone in the county has some Indian or Mexican blood, this is home to the families and culture which David Hackett Fischer describes in Albion’s Seed as Scotch-Irish, double distilled, first by the Highland clearances and then by transportation from Ireland. The culture was distilled again by Reconstruction Era acts of attainder that outlawed their Confederate and Copperhead ancestors and drove them further West.
As insular as their British forbearers, these folk mined, logged, and ranched in their mountain fastness quite happily for over a century. The only high school in the county calls its teams the Mountaineers, and its mascot is a bearded, corncobpiped, peak-hatted Appalachian hillbilly. The county is so remote that in the past it served as refuge to renegades and badmen like Mangas Coloradas (Red Sleeves), who acquired the name by bathing his arms in the blood of Spanish colonists he had killed. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out there for a while, and Billy the Kid frequented Frisco, today’s Reserve, the county seat.
Life was never idyllic in Catron County; it required hard work, thrift, and grit to survive in a place where 85 percent of its 7,800 square miles is held by the federal government. It was the land that drew them in the first place. In the last century, the West was held by land barons, American and foreign, who ruthlessly defended their enormous claims. Congress enacted the Homestead Laws to break up such power. Anyone could stake claim to 40 or, much later, 640 acres, but in the arid West, such small plots would not feed your family. To settle, to pacify the West, the federal government offered the acreage, plus all the surrounding pasture your cattle could eat, limited only by the number of cows you could water. Enticed by such bait, people came.
But the homesteading ended in Catron County when Congress passed, from 1891 to 1906, a series of Forest Reserve laws. One could not homestead on lands the feds reserved to themselves, ostensibly withdrawn from the public to “protect the watersheds and to assure a steady supply of timber to the nation.” In reality, these laws protected Eastern timber companies from competition with the vast timber resources of the West.
At the beginning of the century, ranchers all over the West began to petition the central government to create a permit system to protect their grazing rights from transient sheep and cattle drovers. They got what they asked for, a system of prioritized classes of permits that imposed a nominal grazing tax. Soon, someone in Washington, D.C., realized that taxes are imposed only on property rights, and the grazing tax was changed quietly and slyly to a grazing “fee.” This treachery greatly undercuts grazing rights claims made now, 90 years later.
But no one really noticed the difference, or noticed when Congress created the Aldo Leopold-Gila Wilderness in the big, beautiful county. No one really noticed all the hippies coming to worship Mother Earth on altars inside the Catron County line. Nonetheless, the people of Catron County lived in relative peace with the United States government for decades until the environmentalist and consumerist awakening of the 1970’s, when Congress passed a series of statutes designed to protect and clean the natural environment, including FLPMA, the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act.
This innocuous sounding law greatly expanded federal land management missions and budgets and staffs. It, combined with the Supreme Court’s decision in Kleppe v. New Mexico, changed the central government from a mere proprietor of huge tracts of the West, subject to state regulation, into the governing power of those lands. And with this change in legal status came hordes of federal bureaucrats with degrees in biology and earth sciences and with eco-agendas. Most had no connection to the West, to rural cultures, or to production of food, fiber, or minerals. To the contrary, many brought to their power and position real enmity toward rural Western producers.
Thus the stage was set for the drama of recent years. The protagonists are a local culture that for historical reasons distrusts government and despises absentee landlords, but values production from the land; a central bureaucracy hell-bent to make war on production and freedom in the name of environmental and consumer protection; and a tiny, radical pack of anarcho-hippies who advocate the murder of loggers by spiking trees, determined to set up the other two actors for mortal combat. There are subplots as well. The Forest Service had watched helplessly as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grabbed the power to manage Northwestern National Forests in the guise of protecting the Northern Spotted Owl, a gambit aided and abetted by FWS allies in the Audubon Society-Sierra Club-Wilderness Society axis.
Worried that the latter move was afoot in New Mexico and Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service in 1990 promulgated Interim Guidelines protecting the Mexican Spotted Owl (and thereby protecting its own power to manage the Southwestern forests). Unfortunately, the Forest Service failed to perform the full socioeconomic impact studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and thus could not predict the economic devastation its plan immediately wreaked upon Catron County’s logging industry and its society.
In reaction, the Catron County Commission began passing a series of county ordinances based on federal laws, designed to remind Forest Service employees of their legal duties and responsibilities to protect local cultures and economies. The agents responded badly, and a federal attorney sent a letter threatening to jail the county commission. When reminded that his letter violated the commissioners’ civil rights, he politely requested the return of his letter. The green advocacy groups and the national media likewise went into hysterics, and Catron County was painted as ignorant, violent, and redneck by CNN, TBS, the Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America, the Sierra Club, the state attorney general, etc.
In the midst of this mud throwing and screaming, the county commission quietly passed a series of environmental protection ordinances, miniature NEPAs. It did so because federal regulations and NEPA recognize and protect both the biophysical and socioeconomic environments. They also recognize the fact the local governments have the power to pass laws for environmental protection, and that those local laws may duplicate federal efforts. Because local government has such powers, federal agents are mandated to cooperate, coordinate, and jointly plan with counties.
This second generation of ordinances was deliberately designed to provide the maximum duplication of federal planning, thus acquiring, by federal law and regulations, a local voice in federal planning, a place at the table. Other county governments in the West have tried to cut right to the root by engineering lawsuits that challenge the federal government’s right to own the Western lands. So far, these efforts have been kamikaze-like, bold and showy, but ineffective and self-destructive.
Our approach has been attacked in federal court by the local environmental-extremist group, which claimed that the ordinances created an atmosphere of violence and intimidation that chilled their free exercise of civil rights. The federal judge dismissed the suit, saying that his court could not enjoin the residents of Catron County from disliking environmental activists. He ruled that the group had no standing until its members had been arrested for violation of county ordinances. The leader of the pack immediately presented herself to the sheriff demanding to be arrested; her argument sounded as though it had been carefully reasoned out by Tommy Smothers.
On another front, the county commission filed suit in 1993 against the FWS for blatant defiance of the NEPA. In 1985, the FWS proposed to list as threatened two minnow species found in the Gila River of New Mexico and Arizona. In the same published rules, it proposed the designation of critical habitat for the minnows. FWS agents had decided that they ought to be exempt from NEPA, and so prepared no Environmental Assessments, no Environmental Impact Statements, nothing. After a delay of seven years, FWS agents determined to adopt recovery plans for the fish without ever designating the habitat as required by the Endangered Species Act. The plan basically was to remove all cattle from the Gila drainage, which would drive the final nail in the coffin of Catron County’s economy and tax base.
The commissioners filed a federal lawsuit asking the judge to enjoin those federal agents’ implementation and enforcement of the final critical habitat designation, unless and until those agents comply with NEPA, the Administrative Procedures Act, and the Endangered Species Act. The federal district judge ruled against the FWS and all the environmentalists who had filed briefs. Catron County had won a stunning victory in its battle for a place at the table, a voice in its own future.
But the agents did not give up, did not accept the rule of law, and did not invite us to the table. They appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where eventually the county again was upheld. The decision stands as a legal precedent for property owners to bring assaults against every critical habitat designation in the country. It was another victory for elected local government against the unelected bureaucracy that devours freedoms; but, still, we received no concession, no admission, and no admittance. If the recalcitrant agents of the government appeal to the Supreme Court, they gamble having a direct order to obey the law all over America, not just inside the Tenth Circuit.
The 2,500 people of Catron County, New Mexico, have proven that rogue federal agents are vulnerable and that the judiciary still can fulfill its role. Hundreds of counties, throughout the United States, are emulating us, and demanding that bureaucrats honor local government’s right to be involved in federal environmental planning. For example, the Arizona-New Mexico Coalition of Counties was built around Catron County and its ideas, literally and figuratively. It is now five years old and includes counties that cover half of each state and 900,000 citizens.
The Forest Service has capitulated and entered a Memorandum of Understanding with the county, fleshing out the details of our joint and mutual planning efforts. It has sent it to all the District Forest Rangers in America with instructions to execute the same MOU with the counties in their districts. The agents are slowly and grudgingly complying.
Whether petty tyrants comply or resist, several questions remain unanswered. When will the national media stop their assaults on our ancient and honorable culture? When will multicultural diversity make room for us? When will the legislature or the courts create a mechanism whereby unelected government agents will be disciplined for deliberately and flagrantly disregarding, defying, disobeying, and violating the law of the land and the rule of law?
The answers to such questions may be beyond the reach of tiny Catron County, New Mexico, Or maybe not. We have founded the Catron Institute, for the study and defense of the rural culture of Western America. This country is full of thinkers, planners, philosophers, and whiners. Catron County is full of doers.
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