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Cow County Tells U.S. to Back Off : Land use: A slice of the Old West declares joint sovereignty over government lands and threatens to arrest federal officials. A coalition of cowboys, merchants and ex-Earth Firsters is behind the revolt.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This has always been a hospitable place to troublemakers.

It was the last staging ground for Apache raids across the Southwest. Billy the Kid lived here for a few years. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid worked briefly as peace officers. Dave Foreman, the rebel environmentalist, took up residence in the 1970s during the early years of the Earth First! movement he helped found.

Although it is quieter here now, Catron County has not lost its flair for Old West theatrics or its penchant for thumbing its nose at authority.

Backed by an eccentric coalition of cowboys, merchants, ex-Earth Firsters and aging hippies with flowing beards and names like Uncle River and Lone Wolf Circles, Catron County has sparked a populist uprising that has spread to most western states. It pits the agrarian traditions of cow towns and logging camps against the modern muscle of federal regulatory agencies and their allies in the environmental movement.

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Following Catron’s lead, about 300 counties in the West are laying claims to joint sovereignty over federal lands lying within their boundaries. The movement reflects mounting concern that the government’s efforts to protect wilderness are costing local people their jobs and pushing small towns down the road to extinction.

The movement began three years ago when the Catron County Commission passed an ordinance calling for the arrest of any federal agent who violated the civil rights of residents. It was a bold thrust for a place defended by just six law enforcement officers.

It was so controversial that the Forest Service threatened to summon federal marshals, and the sheriff at the time said he would not enforce it. But he lost the next election and his successor, Bob Wellborn, an imposing man known hereabouts as Scarface, took a different approach. “With a warrant issued by a judge I would arrest anyone,” he said.

Claiming a historic “civil right” to work the land in Catron County, and backing it up with language from treaties and land grants dating to the 16th Century, officials declared that they no longer would take orders from the federal government on matters of “local custom and culture"--in other words, logging, mining and ranching.

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“Catron County did what a lot of rural counties have been wanting to do for a long time. It said ‘enough,’ ” said Frank Falen, a member of a Cheyenne, Wyo., law firm that is providing legal guidance to the county home rule movement.

Catron County is mostly outback--a labyrinth of narrow, twisting canyons, spiny ridges and desert mountain ranges that cover an area nearly the size of Massachusetts. With a population of less than 3,000, a handful of tiny towns with no hospitals and not a single street light, it might seem an unlikely place to foment a political revolt.

Not if you know the inhabitants. Settled by Confederate veterans and Copperheads--Southern sympathizers from Northern states who fled persecution after the Civil War--Catron County has always been a refuge for people who resent outside interference.

“People still move out there because they think they are coming to the end of the map where they can hole up and do what they want,” said Peter Russell, a planner who lives in Silver City just south of Catron County.

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As in many western counties, livelihoods here are tied to land belonging to the federal government. People eke out a living running small herds of cattle, working in sawmills or chipping away at silver deposits in the Mogollon Mountains. Weekly earnings average less than $250.

When the government began carving out sanctuaries for the Mexican spotted owl and a half-dozen other threatened species, jobs were affected. A sawmill employing 75 people shut down and century-old wilderness grazing rights were in jeopardy.

There have been no confrontations with federal authorities since Catron County issued its arrest threat, but local officials say the saber rattling had the desired effect.

“We have successfully asserted our right to equal partnership in land-use decisions,” said Jim Catron, the county’s attorney and a descendant of Thomas Catron, an early U.S. senator from New Mexico for whom the county is named.

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County officials have obtained a pledge from the U.S. Forest Service to consult with them on all land-use decisions. Even though there is nothing on paper to suggest that the federal government will abide by the county’s recommendations, Forest Service officials are doing a good job of sounding compliant.

“The problem we had, we weren’t recognizing the county as a governing body to the extent we should have,” said Carl Pence, acting supervisor of the Gila National Forest.

But Pence said life has not been easy for his people since the county issued its ultimatum. “Some of our people did feel intimidated. They thought they might be in some danger.”

Others argue that the county avoided bloodshed by taking matters into its own hands.

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“A lot of people felt they had been pushed too far. If we hadn’t done what we did, someone probably would have gotten shot,” said Howard Hutchinson, a former Earth Firster and a leading proponent of the county sovereignty movement, promoting Catron’s version of rural civil rights to audiences across the West.

The county’s ordinance bears little resemblance to the civil rights laws of the 1960s upholding racial equality. Here, the law has more to do with property rights--specifically, the rights of residents to make a living off the land much as they have for a century or more.

Yet, as they defend the sanctity of rural “custom and culture"--the buzzwords of the county movement--these white men in cowboy hats liken themselves to members of an oppressed minority trying to preserve what is left of an ancient heritage.

“We were getting treated like the Indians,” said James (Speedy) Shelton, a 69-year-old cowboy poet whose grandparents came to New Mexico from Kentucky after the Civil War.

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In most places where the Catron example has been followed, including several counties in Northern California, the language has been watered down. Federal agents outside of southwestern New Mexico would not appear to be in danger of arrest.

However, Catron’s gospel of custom and culture enjoys wide adherence, with most counties claiming a constitutional right to take part in any federal land planning affecting the livelihoods of residents.

In California, sponsors of a Butte County joint powers resolution said the county was able to head off a proposed ban on recreation and fishing by having a place at the bargaining table. The ban had been proposed as part of a federal wild and scenic rivers designation for a local stream. A spokesman for the resolution also said the county was able to win postponement of a plan to place 32 endangered species of grass off limits to cattle grazing.

Despite its early successes, the county movement has been ridiculed as modern-day “know nothingism” by hard-line environmentalists and dismissed by legal scholars. Foreman has taken to referring to his old stomping grounds as “cartoon county.” In the only legal test so far, a clone of the New Mexico ordinance was shot down by a federal judge in Idaho, who ruled that it violated the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which grants sovereignty to the federal government.

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However, some environmentalists argue against trivializing the county movement, saying it reflects the anxiety of people who have been watching the steady decline of rural communities since World War II.

“It is a bona fide, grass-roots citizens movement,” said Donald Snow, director of the Northern Lights Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit group that promotes environmental causes. “All over the West there is a constituency that represents hardscrabble livelihood, not corporate profit.”

Snow also believes that environmentalists and their rural adversaries have more in common than they think, including a desire to preserve the West’s natural resources. He urges both sides “to get down out of the cockpits of their fighter planes and start talking to one another.”

There is no sign of that happening soon in Catron County.

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Last year, sponsors of the ordinance began attacking a local environmental group as “pagan nature worshipers” in a series of radio ads.

The environmentalists claim that the ads provoked a string of evictions, tire slashings and barroom sluggings that prompted them to leave the county. But after retreating to Silver City, they mounted a counteroffensive aimed at purging cows from the Gila Wilderness.

Located mainly in Catron County, the Gila became the nation’s first official wilderness preserve in 1924. Today, this landscape of silvery streams, gnarled cottonwoods and magenta-tipped canyon walls is a fragile terrain that bleeds easily and often. Old-timers blame the perennial destruction of streamside vegetation on a recurring cycle of drought and flood. Environmentalists point to the year-round pounding of cattle hoofs.

But there is more to custom and culture in the rural West than cattle ranching.

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In Catron County, there is Ed Bashista, a self-described screwball inventor who moved his family and 60 tons of automotive testing equipment from suburban Los Angeles 10 years ago to a juniper-studded hilltop in Catron County. Bashista speaks darkly of prying bureaucrats and corporate pirates who interfered with his work in Los Angeles.

Now, generating his own power and operating out of a cluster of military surplus trailers, Bashista said he is free to pursue his dream of designing the world’s cleanest, most fuel-efficient combustion engine.

Down the road in Glenwood, a wide spot along U.S. 180, Wendy Peralta, whose family has been here for four generations, still spars with bureaucrats as she tries to sustain her tiny community.

State officials, she said, are threatening to shut down the two-room schoolhouse for a lack of students. Meanwhile, Peralta is searching for someone to take her place as the volunteer ambulance driver.

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“It gets to you after a while, sitting next to dying friends and neighbors all the way to Silver (City), knowing you probably won’t make it in time,” she said.

Also on Peralta’s mind is her tussle with an oil company over its demand for removal of the elk head that has graced her family’s gas station for 50 years.

“They don’t care if your help is rude, naked or red in the face as long as the place looks exactly like every other gas station in the country,” Peralta said.

From Peralta’s moldering elk horns to the nearby ghost town of Mogollon, the past in Catron County is hard to ignore. For environmentalists who focus on the piles of cyanide-slaked mine tailings and on the dusty, cow-clogged creek bottoms, the scene is more retrograde than romantic.

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The past also echoes in the political movement that got started here. It is reminiscent of rural America’s most famous lost cause, the 1890s Populist campaign against the gold standard and 20th-Century capitalism.

Despite all its troubles, those in Catron County make an argument for keeping things the way they are.

“When you come here, you don’t have to worry about how much money you have, or what you’ve done in your past life,” Peralta said. “People assume you’ll pull your weight. The welcome mat is out. Around here, people leave their keys in their truck in case a neighbor needs to borrow it. It’s not such a bad place.”

Drawing the Line

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Residents of Catron County in New Mexico have sparked a populist uprising by laying claim to joint sovereignty over federal lands that lie within their bounderies.


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