The Wayward West: With Liberty and Firepower for All
Like a lot of westerners, the gun-waving citizens of Catron County, New Mexico, are clinging to a way of life that may be outdated. But some of them would sooner start shooting than let it slip away.
By Mark Dowie
Federal and state agents threaten the life, liberty and happiness of the people of Catron County.... A state of emergency prevails that calls for devotion and sacrifice.
--From the preamble to the Catron County Comprehensive Land Use and Policy Plan
In September 1994, word spread through Catron County New Mexico, that two FBI agents and a dozen National Guardsmen were combing the mountains north of Luna, a small town near the Arizona border. Officially, the men were searching for the body of an alleged drug dealer who had disappeared mysteriously a year earlier. But a buzz went around the county that they were really the advance party of a darker event: a pending firearms raid by U.S. government forces.
"The federal crime bill had just been passed, and the government had already conducted sweeps in several communities," says Chris Crabill, a 43-year-old cabinetmaker who lives with his family in the nearby town of Reserve, the county seat. "Ruby Ridge and Waco were also on our minds." On the night of September 7, Crabill gathered several guns and moved into the woods, hunkering down in view of his house so he could watch over his family while they slept.
The next morning someone called a right-wing radio talk show beamed deep into the Southwest from Bakersfield, California, and told the host that "5,000 National Guardsmen have invaded Catron County." That night, prompted by the new rumor, Catherine Crabill piled her four kids into the family Wagoneer and drove them to her mother's home in Corrales, in another county, so that "my husband could sleep in the house. We did not flee in terror as some have suggested. But I was scared." About a dozen other locals also moved to "safer" houses for a day or two. The county's phone lines hummed with forebodings of invasion.
There was no invasion, but eight months later, on May 3, 1995, the Crabills helped organize a community meeting in Reserve to discuss the creation of a militia. Some 250 residents showed up, roughly 10 percent of the county's population. One by one, cowboys, loggers, and homemakers, folks who generally wave to strangers and keep their doors unlocked, stepped forward to describe a government assault that they clearly believed was imminent.
Some locals spoke of seeing unmarked helicopters performing secret maneuvers, of "government Rambo squads" that were out to rob ranchers of their livelihood. One man said federal forces were, at that very moment, marching on the county from the north. As tempers smoldered, Nancy Brown, a neighbor of the Crabills, stood and recounted a recent dream in which the demons of gun control kicked in her front door. "I pulled a double-barrel shotgun," she said, "and asked, 'Which one of you sons of Satan wishes to die first?' "
By that point, the room was in a frenzy. "Whoever comes across the county line must be considered an aggressor!" shouted Richard Nichols, a retired shopkeeper from Luna. "And they will be treated as enemies of the people!"
In the end, Catron County did not create a formal militia that night, mainly because the county commission, the previous August, had passed a resolution "encouraging" heads of households to own and carry guns at all times and to keep sufficient ammunition on hand. Before the meeting wound down, the point became abundantly clear: Plenty of people in the county already were armed and prepared to do battle with the federal government or other alien invaders. The citizens of Catron County didn't need to form a militia. They were a militia.
Seditious talk is nothing new in this defiant corner of southwestern New Mexico. From the deeply canyoned Mimbres, Mangas, Tularosa, and Mogollon Mountains--watersheds of the mighty Gila and San Francisco Rivers--and across the arroyo-scarred desert that spreads in all directions, the area has housed fugitives from every conceivable oppressor. Confederate veterans and copperheads, as northerners who sympathized with the South were known, emigrated here during Reconstruction to escape the wrath of carpetbaggers. Apache chieftains Mangas Colorado and Geronimo came in the late 1800s to elude the U.S. Cavalry. In the 1930s, socialists trickled in seeking refuge from incessant red-baiting. Hippies came in the sixties to flee the city. And in 1980, Dave Foreman, who had run away from the bureaucratic bore of Washington environmentalism, cofounded Earth First! in the town of Glenwood. Mix it all with the feisty spirit imported by nineteenth-century waves of English, Scottish, and Irish settlers--whose memories of enclosures and royal high-handedness made them wary of both fences and authority--and Catron County's undercurrent of anarchy, detectable in the briefest of conversations, begins to make sense. Here, in one of the most desolate patches of the Southwest, is a culture that prides itself on refusing to take any crap from outsiders.
Starting in 1989, Catron County codified that sentiment, passing county ordinances that essentially told the U.S. government to shove it. Through a series of laws and an accompanying land-use plan that have made the county famous--even though, to this day, they remain paper threats that have never been enforced--the ordinances granted the commissioners unilateral power to veto federal endangered-species and wilderness regulations and to pass judgment on all timber and mining decisions. They also defined public grazing permits as "private property rights" and authorized the county sheriff to arrest any federal or state official who attempted to enforce the despised federal statutes. This in a county where more than 65 percent of the land is owned by the U.S. government.
Taken together, Catron County's actions have symbolically rejected most of the laws, treaties, and purchase agreements that define public-land use in the West--and they've encouraged other local governments to follow suit. Over the past five years, the Catron County ordinances have spawned a broader revolt known simply as the county movement, a defiant assertion of local sovereignty that, while centered primarily in the West, has popped up from coast to coast. The movement, whose proponents believe that federal environmental laws place a drag on western agricultural economies, is coordinated by the National Federal Lands Conference, a bare-knuckle Wise Use outfit headquartered in Bountiful, Utah, which sells copies of the Catron County land-use plan for $257.50 apiece. "Many counties," NFLC executive director Ruth Kaiser says with pride, "simply substitute their name for 'Catron' throughout the document and submit it verbatim to their own commissioners or supervisors."
More than 30 counties nationwide have passed measures that mimic Catron County's, and at least 40 more are considering such laws. Some have added their own unique twists. For example, Nye County, Nevada, which in recent years has emerged as an even more radical bastion than Catron County, has passed a symbolic ordinance that transfers full title to all federal land--93 percent of the county--directly to the state, whose officials presumably would ease off on the county's regulatory burden.
Such maneuvers are a familiar theme in American history, of course, and they have always drawn a decisive thump from the federal government. In 1794, exactly 200 years before Catron County residents met to contemplate the horror of a federal invasion, citizens of western Pennsylvania rose up in arms against the new government's authority to impose a whiskey tax. President George Washington quashed the Whiskey Rebellion without a battle by sending in 13,000 troops. The Civil War was, in part, an immeasurably more tragic test of the southern states' right to "nullify" federal laws.
But despite widespread fears, the county movement's defiance has not drawn an aggressive federal response--mainly because the government, despite its rapacious image among county activists, has been searching for a compromise. In February 1994, Catron County and the U.S. Forest Service negotiated a "memorandum of understanding" in which both sides agreed, at least on paper, to cooperate on the enforcement of all federal environmental regulations applied in Catron County.
The agreement calmed nerves somewhat; nonetheless, the possibility of violence remains as tough talk continues among county-movement partisans, inside and outside Catron County. The overheated rhetoric is partly the work of itinerant pollinators of extremism--groups like the Posse Comitatus, the Christian Identity movement, and Aryan Nations, whose spokesmen have been touring counties like Catron, burning United Nations flags, and preaching paranoia about alleged government conspiracies. But the county movement isn't innocent. Despite public statements to the contrary, the NFLC is ardently promoting the formation of antigovernment militias, which according to its private membership communiqués are necessary "because we have scalawags and rascals...in places of power.... We cannot trust the Federal Government to look out for our individual freedoms, which are disappearing faster than baby turtles at a sea gull convention."
In this climate of deepening mistrust, environmentalists and forest rangers who work in areas like Catron County feel increasingly threatened. Guy Pence, a Forest Service ranger in Carson City, Nevada, has twice been the apparent focus of bombing incidents--once at his office last March and more recently on August 4, when his family van was blown up in front of his house. Pence's brother, Carl, is deputy forest supervisor of Gila National Forest, much of which is located in the southern part of Catron County. Over the last year, his staff has found, hidden in various locations in the forest, four pipe bombs and a large cache of plastic explosives.
In a much-publicized clash in the summer of last year, Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver, ignoring the pleas of a Forest Service ranger, used a bulldozer to open a closed logging road while an armed crowd cheered him on. "All it would have taken was for him to draw a weapon," Carver bragged later, "and 50 people with sidearms would have drilled him." Carver was never prosecuted for the incident.
So far, Catron County has not seen such a confrontation, but the threat is tangible. In a March 1994 "open letter" to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nancy Brown and her husband, Clyde, wrote, "I think you bureaucrats better back off before someone gets seriously hurt. Who among you would want to loose [sic] your life for a bird...or a microscopic minnow?" One afternoon in the spring of 1994, an unidentified man accosted Tim Tibbitts, a federal wildlife biologist who had driven to Catron County from Phoenix to explain the Endangered Species Act to a local rancher. Outside the county courthouse in Reserve, the man pulled open the door of Tibbitts's car and warned him and two colleagues that if they "ever [came] back to Catron County, we'll blow your fucking head off." Tibbitts has since left Fish and Wildlife, in part over his frustration that the threat was not forcefully investigated. These days, rangers in Catron County usually do fieldwork in pairs, often in plain clothes, and carry "contact cards" with phone numbers to be used in case of arrest.
All of which raises a pressing question: How long can county governments get away with mocking the law of the land? One person who says the situation has gone on too long already is Jim Baca, a New Mexico-based Wilderness Society official who headed the Bureau of Land Management under President Bill Clinton before resigning over philosophical disagreements with the administration.
"The reaction has been much too slow," he says. "I think Bruce Babbitt and Bill Clinton didn't want to cause any more waves in the West. But the more you appease people, the more they're willing to take another step." Baca, who believes the county movement is an illegitimate expression of legitimate fears among rural westerners about their uncertain future, says the government should react firmly to the county movement's clear provocation.
"Finally, after Oklahoma City, the government filed a suit--civil, not criminal like it should have been--in Nye County," he says. "But until then the government was definitely sitting on its hands. You have to ask who else would have gotten away with what these county-movement people have pulled."
As Baca points out, the Justice Department has begun to act against the county movement. In the Nye County suit, filed in federal court last spring, the government intends to "make clear that federal lands belong to all people" by proving that officials there had no right to transfer title to federal land. Although the mainstream environmental activists have generally misread and underestimated the county revolt, private plaintiffs in the West, usually affiliated with environmental groups, have begun filing their own suits. And in at least one case--in Boundary County, Idaho, where backpackers challenged a set of county-movement ordinances--they've easily won the first round.
At this point, it's difficult to say how county advocates will respond to such challenges if additional losses occur. But as the lawsuits simmer, observers have begun to consider larger questions about the true nature and ultimate motives of the county movement. Despite its excesses, is this protest saying something important about the economic pressures facing western ranchers? Or is it simply a misbegotten idea that only signals a dark, ominous, and dangerous stirring in the grass roots of the nation?
At 6,929 square miles, Catron County is larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, yet it contains only 2,600 people, a population so thin that new pregnancies often count as major news. The most settled part of the county is a string of tiny villages running 40 miles along the San Francisco River between Reserve and Glenwood. Per capita income here is low--$8,500, or $2,700 less than the rest of New Mexico--and the houses tend to be prefabs and trailers. There are no movie theaters in the county, no malls, no bookstores, no radio or TV stations. The "local" newspaper is the Courier, a testy right-wing weekly published in Hatch, New Mexico, 60 miles beyond the county line.
The county was named after Thomas B. Catron, a turn-of-the-century lawyer and land baron who became a prominent member of the Santa Fe Ring, a New Mexico version of Tammany Hall. Today, most of Thomas Catron's descendants are liberal lawyers in Santa Fe. A very distant relative--"about eighth cousin" by his own reckoning--is James Catron, who also happens to be the private-practice lawyer who provides Catron County's legal counsel. A self-described "redneck Mensan" who attributes his rebel spirit to a mixture of Celtic and American Indian blood, Catron is fiercely loyal to his home turf. Along with Dick Manning, a charismatic cowboy entrepreneur who is considered the richest and most powerful man in Catron County--and who declined to be interviewed--Catron has been one of the prime movers in the county's revolt.
The day that we meet, the wiry, thin-lipped Catron is sipping an ice-cold Pepsi in the living room of his modest home, which sits on a few acres of parched land just south of the tiny village of La Joya. While I ask questions, he eyes me carefully. Catron County has received a torrent of media attention in recent years, and Catron believes he's been burned often by reporters, who always act friendly but invariably "misconstrue what I tell them."
"They say I'm in this to get rich," he says, smiling tensely and gesturing outside to a withered orchard as if to illustrate his poverty. Though Catron has left a clear trail of bombast in speeches and op-ed columns--he once wrote that government bureaucrats are "cramming Earth-worship down the throats of our workers and school children"--today he's subdued. In part, perhaps, he's just being careful, but he also seems aware of the demons that can be unleashed when educated leaders rile desperate citizens with conspiracy theories. "Oklahoma City," he says, "was a lesson for all of us."
Still, newfound moderation aside, James Catron helped start it all. In 1990, shortly after Catron County passed some early protest ordinances when the Forest Service restricted timber sales to preserve Mexican spotted owl habitat, Catron decided to launch an all-out legal attack against the feds by exploiting the potential power of county government. "We had no other choice," he says. "We had been colonized." Catron also emphasizes, somewhat disingenuously, that what he had in mind was a sort of legalistic chess gambit--using Catron County's peppery ordinances to pressure the federal government into meeting ranchers halfway.
"Their sole function," he says, "was to educate in a loud voice."
To help him draft the laws, Catron contacted Karen Budd, a tireless Wyoming lawyer who's widely described as the godmother of the county movement. Budd, who served under James Watt at the Interior Department and later moved to the Mountain States Legal Foundation, saw the emerging Catron County situation as a way to advance the moribund Sagebrush Rebellion. In that movement, which began in the seventies but faded after Watt left the Reagan administration in disgrace, big landholders in the West sought to transfer title on federal land to the states and eventually to private ownership.
Applying his own spin to Budd's ideas, Catron invoked both the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, an all-but-forgotten document dating from the Mexican War, to support his claim that federal authorities were trampling local land rights and that federal lands had been "stolen" from the people of New Mexico. (NEPA, a key federal environmental statute, states that federal agencies must respect the culture of the communities where they enforce its regulations. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo contains ambiguous statements indicating that the U.S. government would, according to Budd, "recognize the customs and usages" of former Mexican citizens.) After the ordinances passed, the county sought to have a comprehensive land-use plan drawn up, as required by NEPA, in which the custom and culture of the county would be clearly defined. The term usually is applied to American Indian folkways, but Budd and Catron turned the concept on its head, arguing that "cowboy culture" was an endangered way of life requiring special protection. It was an intriguing twist: Ranchers, who had historically depicted themselves as the very archetypes of American self-reliance, were recasting themselves as society's victims.
Hoping to legitimize this idea, the county commission contracted Karl Hess at the Land Center, a libertarian think tank in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to survey the residents of Catron County and independently assess their custom and culture. Hess was interested, he says, because he believes the federal government often does stomp toes out West--of cowboys, Indians, Hispanics, and lots of others who are struggling to find their way in a changing region. But he soon realized that he would merely be rubber-stamping the agenda of Dick Manning, who seemed determined to "learn" that cowboys were an endangered species.
"For Manning," says Hess, who quickly grew disillusioned, "custom and culture was simply a way to secure control of public lands for a small minority of citizens engaged in ranching, logging, and mining."
Hess's 200-page plan, which he submitted in March 1992, contained what to Manning and Catron's taste was an overly inclusive reading of custom and culture. Hess said Catron County's only "true culture" was the vanished world of the Mogollon, Gila, and Apache Indians. Ranching, he wrote, was "just one of the ways in which people have tackled the problem of feeding themselves." Hess's idea was that Catron County could productively tackle the future only through cooperation among its clashing elements, and he even dared to include the county's few beleaguered environmentalists in the local culture. Appalled, Jim Catron called the document "a self-serving libertarian rant," and the county commissioners summarily rejected and sealed it without public debate. Hess decided right then that the county movement was nothing more than Sagebrush II, with new packaging.
"The rebellion will be a failure," says Hess, "because it lost sight of the county's own wonderful history and failed the land that nurtured it. It failed because it saw the future and retreated into the past."
In the here and now, county-movement tactics are under assault in an arena that county officials can't just ignore: the court system. Thus far only four legal challenges have been filed against county movement initiatives. In the only one that's been decided, Boundary Backpackers v. Boundary County Commissioners, the plaintiffs notched a decisive win that has shaken the county movement. Boundary County, a northern Idaho enclave with an economy based mainly on logging, mining, and agriculture, passed Catron-style ordinances in 1992 and was promptly sued by three environmental groups and 18 county residents, most of them backpackers. In January 1994, a state court judge ruled for the plaintiffs, saying the ordinances violated, among other things, the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which clearly states that federal law is the supreme law of the land. The court also ruled that under the property clause, Congress's power to control federal public land is protected from state or local interference.
The judge awarded the plaintiffs $25,000 in attorneys' fees--an amount that, along with the ruling itself, could have a chilling effect on other small, rural counties that are considering the Catron County ordinances. Along with the federal government's case against Nye County, similar cases have been filed in Walla Walla and Columbia Counties in northern Washington. So far judges have refused to rule in either of these cases until the counties in question actually attempt to enforce their laws.
For his part, Jim Catron says he doesn't much care about the legal challenges. What he was aiming for with the ordinances, he says, was a "joint environmental approach with the federal government, a role we did not have before. And it worked."
Catron walks me to my car and points once again to his bold venture in agriculture--a dozen or so wilted fruit-tree saplings poking out of a parched, hardscrabble field next to his house. "Am I crazy to try this?" he asks with a chuckle. The temperature is at least 105, and it does seem like an unlikely place to farm fruit. As Catron walks back to his house, I wonder if his clients will fare any better in the scorched field of western politics.
Catron county commissioner Hugh McKeen's modest spread is about seven miles outside of Glenwood on the San Francisco River. A third-generation rancher with a dark, severe face, McKeen has been widely quoted as ranting about "environmental extremists" and federal "gestapo tactics." When we sit down for an interview in his kitchen, however, he is tranquil and moderate. In fact, the only difference between McKeen and the similarly tight-lipped Jim Catron is that McKeen opens up to say lyrical things about the land, talking in waves about his love for roadless wilderness, wild rivers, and the writings of Aldo Leopold, the influential conservationist who lived in Catron County during the twenties and developed many of his ideas here.
He seems sincere, so I make the obvious remark: "You sound like an environmentalist."
McKeen sits silently for a moment and mulls it. "I couldn't be. Environmentalists hate cows." I laugh. He doesn't.
"I'm not a politician either, nor do I want to be," McKeen adds. "But when enough people in the county ask you to run for commissioner, you can't say no. It's a matter of duty."
McKeen sits on the three-person commission with two fellow Catron County natives, both conservative white males like himself. Like most second- and third-generation residents, he has misgivings about anyone born outside the county--and he doesn't just mean environmentalists and deluded former urbanites. He's also uncomfortable with imported agitators who have been riling up the county lately, people inspired in part by his own antigovernment talk--such as militia buffs Nancy and Clyde Brown, who moved to Catron several years ago from Kern County, California, and the Reverend Pete Peters, an Idaho-based preacher affiliated with the white-separatist Christian Identity Church. Last October, Peters seduced a gaggle of TV cameramen into Reserve by burning the UN flag in front of the county courthouse. He invited locals to spit on the flag before he torched it.
"That made us look like a bunch of fools," McKeen says bitterly. "Folks here wouldn't do that or use the foul language Peters did in front of the courthouse. We were used."
Presently, McKeen and I go for a stroll out to a riverbank about half a mile from his house, and I ask him what Catron County is really trying to say beneath the static. His message is mixed. Ranchers, he says, made this land livable when doing so was a monumental, dangerous task. The federal government encouraged them to take the risk when it wanted to settle the West. Now, heeding people with very little knowledge of the traditions and cultures that would be replaced, the same government is nitpicking ranchers into extinction.
McKeen points proudly at the willows and the cottonwoods that have grown since he made his own "unauthorized" improvements along the river, undoing some "shoddy" work performed by the Army Corps of Engineers after a flood in 1984. Switching subjects, he says he was baffled by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife scheme to return the endangered Gila trout to the local watershed by poisoning the dominant brown and rainbow trout in nearby Mineral Creek. Aside from being an "asinine and inhumane" way to manage a threatened species, says McKeen, "that creek runs into the San Francisco River right here"--he draws a map in the sand--"right where they are trying to protect the spikedace and the loach minnow," two small fish native to the local waters that recently have been listed as endangered.
"We just want input," concludes McKeen, scribbling out the map. "Environmentalists, who do have input, aren't land-planning agents. We are, and we should be on equal footing."
Equal input? That's it? "Well, if I had my preferences," he admits, muddying the waters again, "I'd go the Nye County route and have us own all the land in the county." He laughs. I don't. Apparently, moderate talk and all, McKeen isn't entirely comfortable with the recent compromises forged with the federal government.
What would happen, I ask, if the Catron County ordinances were enforced, were sustained in the courts, and at some point in the future an environmental majority took over the county commission? McKeen pauses and looks me straight in the eye. He's clearly never contemplated the possibility.
"We'd be in serious trouble," he says. "And so would the Diamond Bar."
Environmentalists and public-land ranchers throughout the Southwest are keeping an eye on Catron County's century-old Diamond Bar Ranch, about 85 miles north of Silver City. Nestled between the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas, the 227-square-mile spread contains the largest Forest Service grazing allotment in the region--and one of the most heavily damaged. The allotment is currently the crux of a dispute that illustrates the vast gulf of perception between environmentalists and the county movement. To greens, it's a prime example of the government bending way too far to please grazers who are feeding at the public trough. To ranchers, it's a dire example of what happens when the feds "interfere" with their way of doing business. "The Diamond Bar," Hugh McKeen contends, "is what's going to happen to all of us."
The ranch was purchased in 1985 by Kit and Sherri Laney. Kit is a member of a large and prominent Mormon family in the area. Sherri is the daughter of a successful rancher in Datil. At the turn of the century, 2,500 head of cattle grazed the spread. By the early seventies, it was so badly worked over that owner John Donaldson voluntarily reduced his herd to 500. When Laney bought it, the grazing permit had been inched up to 1,188 head, subject to the construction of 15 watering tanks positioned far from damaged streambeds. Laney claims the Forest Service told him and his banker that this number was "as good as gold."
The Forest Service, however, decided several years ago that the Diamond Bar needed additional regulation of some sort, because many miles of streambanks in the lowland part of the ranch were showing obvious signs of grazing damage. (For example, cattle had chewed and mashed the willows and cottonwoods whose roots help hold the banks together.) The Forest Service's proposed solution--which at press time was awaiting final review by the regional Forest Service supervisor--is to "rest" a third of the allotment along key streambed acreage for at least five years and to lighten up grazing in other sensitive areas. The Laneys want to continue grazing the entire allotment. They insist that they could take pressure off the streams with the addition of new cattle-barring fences and 40 new stock ponds, some of which would be blasted into rock on surrounding mesas with dynamite.
Coming into the fray from another direction is Silver City environmentalist Susan Schock, director of Gila Watch, a grassroots environmental organization created to protect the Gila River watershed--much of which exists on the Diamond Bar--from what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has described as "imminent ecological collapse." Schock, nicknamed Toxic Schock by ranchers, is horrified by the idea of massive stock tanks being blasted into wilderness. Some tanks, she says, "will hold the equivalent of 15 Olympic-size swimming pools." Her group has appealed the Forest Service's plan, asking that the entire allotment be rested for ten years. If either Laney or Schock doesn't like the Forest Service's final decision--and probably neither will--both sides may sue.
When we speak on the telephone, Laney sounds remarkably optimistic about his plight, but it's evident that behind his easy laugh is a strong strain of the militancy found throughout the county. "They're trying to destroy our lives," he says. Last spring, when the Forest Service announced its compromise--which just happened to be the morning after the Oklahoma City bombing--Laney went even further, telling foresters that if anyone came to seize his cattle, "There will be a hundred people with guns waiting for them."
Laney's difficulties with the idea, of course, are largely financial. Loss of a third of his allotment would require decreasing his herd size, and even the compromise he favors would be costly. The Forest Service would pay $28,000 to help defray his stock-tank and fencing costs, but Laney would still foot most of the bill, a whopping $100,000.
Drama aside, what the Diamond Bar episode illustrates rather clearly is that public-land ranchers, whom Jim Catron likes to call "the independent guts and backbone of America," are not quite as independent as they seem. Many of the fences, irrigation ditches, stock tanks, and other range improvements on the vast public-land ranches of the West are paid for by the taxpayer. Western ranchers also receive generous relief for droughts and floods. Government grazing programs, as many environmentalists have argued, are more a handout than a fundamental right, and feature grazing fees that are far below what ranchers would pay on private land. Furthermore, counties like Catron, where 20 to 30 percent of the highest-paid workers are government employees, would suffer serious economic consequences if those agencies were driven out by the county movement.
Many ranchers, miners, and logging contractors say they would happily forfeit the subsidies in return for the freedom to manage the land however they see fit. "We'd do a lot better if we were left alone," says Hugh McKeen. "This would become a prosperous county."
Jim Baca doesn't buy it. "What western ranchers really say to the government is, 'Give us your land, give us your taxpayer money, and leave us alone.' But even if government subsidies aren't reduced, plain old everyday economics will do away with all of them in 20 years. It's simply not economical to raise cattle in the West. They can't compete with feedlots in the Midwest and South."
So what are Catron County's ranchers supposed to do? Raise ornamental cactus? "They could work as stewards of the public land," Baca says. "They could run dude ranches..." He stops himself, realizing that the dude-ranch concept is a bit far-fetched. "Look, I don't have magic solutions," he says, "but nobody had magic solutions for the people who ran the corner grocery stores when supermarkets took over, and they had to adapt to change like everybody else."
New Mexico writer Stephen Bodio once described the Catron County Fair as "a four-day celebration of meat." The Fourth of July festivities, held next to the county fairgrounds west of Reserve, are a midsummer installment in the ongoing feast. Amid a hungry crowd stands a barbecue pit that looks like a small locomotive. Inside a long, black iron pipe about five feet in diameter, slabs of beef weighing up to 20 pounds are smoked over a low charcoal fire. A 16-ounce slice on a white-bread bun sells for $1.30--unquestionably one of the best beef buys in America.
Dripping sandwich in hand, I walk over to Main Street, site of the Independence Day parade, to see how Smokey Bear, official symbol of the hated U.S. Forest Service, will be treated when he appears amid the floats and bands. I've been told he might get hissed, booed, possibly pelted with eggs. But when Smokey rounds the corner onto the parade route, he waves, dances, and tosses candy to children. No hisses are heard. Today even Smokey, and everything he represents, gets a holiday.
Later, Catherine Crabill, who missed the parade this year, tells me that if she'd been in town, she might have hissed or booed. "I once revered Smokey as a symbol of all that was good," she says. "But that was before cowboys were seen as the source of all that is evil--as land rapers."
Obviously, the Crabills' perceptions and philosophies have changed radically since they moved to Catron County in 1992. The last place they lived before that was Santa Fe; before that, Aspen, Colorado, where, Catherine says, "We were definitely part of the coffee-and-croissant crowd--committed environmentalists." But soon after coming to Reserve, she says, "We began to see through the propaganda and lies of traditional environmentalism. We no longer believe, for example, that cattle are hurting the land. And we don't trust the things we used to trust." The startling about-face has everything to do with the Crabills' immersion in the town of Reserve, the hotbed of Catron County conspiracy theorizing. Catherine believes, for example, that the State Department, at the UN's behest, is pushing through a "three-stage plan" to disarm the world for its own dark purposes.
The dark tides surging in the minds of Chris and Catherine Crabill may sound comical, but they represent an unsettling new western attitude that places like Catron County can't ignore. The old stereotype of New West settlers like the Crabills is that they're people who've abandoned the swarm of prosperous urban centers to live a ranchette lifestyle. Often they've come to the West with very little sympathy for the deep desperation of people whose very worst fear is having to move to the cities that the newcomers have abandoned. Karl Hess calls this tension "the unforgiving reality of the urbanized West," and he believes the county movement "is simply a momentary aberration, where proud men and women take their final bow" in a world that is changing too fast.
The Crabills are coming from somewhere else entirely: They think the "final bow" should be one not of forbearance, but of rage, and their far-right ideas have managed to shake up even thick-skinned men like Hugh McKeen. The county movement, however, probably shouldn't be allowed to cry innocent about people like the Crabills. Behind its own battle cries lurks the dark side of populism, whipped to a frenzy by people whom Bruce Babbitt describes as being "out to divest the public of their lands."
As a lawyer, Jim Catron may be content to peacefully test his interpretation of county sovereignty against the government's. Still, deep down, he must know that the movement he helped create reflects nostalgia for a time when, as he puts it, "Someone causing pain to a community was simply shot." Whatever becomes of the strange revolution that Catron County has set in motion, it's already created a frightening possibility: One angry man or woman acting on that nostalgia could place a bloody stain on the legacy of the modern West.
Mark Dowie is the author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press).