The Wayward West: With Liberty and Firepower for All
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Outside magazine, November 1995
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a lot of westerners, the gun-waving citizens of Catron County, New Mexico, are clinging to a way of life that may be outdated.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.
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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,
“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,
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,”
“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,
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
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
“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.”
“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
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
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
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,
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
“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,
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
Mark Dowie is the author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press).