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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.

April 04, 1994|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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