Sunday, September 05, 2010

Wilderness’ Economic Revolution – Catron County

Editor's note: I was recently critical of the article Report: Wilderness areas good for economy. Now comes Mr. Wilmeth to tell us how Wilderness has affected Catron County.

By Stephen L. Wilmeth

In the summer of 1922, America’s famous conservationist, Aldo Leopold, was assigned duties on what had become the Gila National Forest. He fought fires there and he saw enough of the Gila River drainage and eastern Arizona’s Escondido Mountain area that his vision for wilderness was solidly formulated. In 1924, he coauthored an administrative plan and the Forest Service, without Congressional approval, engineered the first wilderness area in the United States. The Gila Wilderness was created.

In 1964, Congress finally enacted wilderness legislation. In that year, the Wilderness Act was passed and signed. The Gila Wilderness was officially designated, but the federal agency administration regarding wilderness management had been evolving and eliminating private rights endeavors for over 20 years.

The Gila Wilderness was true wilderness in every sense. It fit the vision of Leopold where stewardship of land was part of the underpinning of the concept. Mr. Leopold wrote extensively about a wilderness being the domain of the horseman, where all other means of entry had been halted by sheer physical barrier, and where a two week pack trip would never cross the same set of tracks. In the case of the Gila as in the Leopold writings, the presence of the stewards on horseback would become forever part of the lore of the wilderness when their references to places and or recollections of events would become permanent names of physical features.

The majority of that original wilderness designation occurred in Catron County. Catron County encompasses 6,928 square miles of land area in the southwestern quarter of the state. With a population of 3,443 in 2009, its population is less than one person per square mile. With all the recent discussion by Senators Bingaman and Udall and the various EarthFirst! influenced groups touting the economic benefits of additional wilderness designation in southern New Mexico, it is time to review how the Gila Wilderness, the so called “Yellowstone of the South”, has affected the economy of Catron County.

If wilderness designations positively affect local economies, Catron County should surely demonstrate such cause and affect results. The county, with its depleted historical industries of logging and ranching, depends heavily on the industrial and job growth of conditions directly affected by Forest Service and wilderness management relationships.

There are a number of places to start, but the one that meets the most obvious chronologically correct start is the population of Catron County. If wilderness promotes economic growth, Catron County should have experienced some growth increase from 1960 to 1970 since the Gila Wilderness was officially designated in 1964. Catron experienced a decrease of population of 21% in the decade of the ‘60s.

Fast forward to this decade and that trend is in play again. The population is down 3.6% from 2000. The most recent employment growth index, a real gauge of economic trend, is down 1.4%. For a matter of reference, the final quarter 2009 unemployment was 11.4%. Permanent jobs are not being created in Catron County and it can be argued that they have not been since wilderness was created.

Healthy economies normally attract young people and yet statistics indicate that the population of Catron County is much older than the general population of New Mexico. The Catron County dynamic for folks older than 65 is 189% of the New Mexico average comparison. Youth, calculated for ages under 18, are 63% of their New Mexico counterparts. Consider those statistics. Those results suggest that the folks of age are nearly double the state averages and the numbers of youth are about half the state average! The County is aging and youth must leave to find jobs, and they have for years.

If income is the measure of economic boost from the Gila Wilderness to the County, the statistic shows that Catron County median income is 67% of that of New Mexico’s which ranks only 81% of the national average.

How about retail sales? Catron County’s income generates retail sales of $1,304 per resident year versus the state number of $9,880 for all residents in New Mexico.

These statistics could continue, but the truth is Catron County is a poor, rural county that faces catastrophic financial difficulties. It has no real permanent wealth. It has been devastated by federal agency policies that have contributed directly to the collapse of its historical industries, and it is too poor to protect itself further from such ravages.

If there is a perfect model to forecast pure wilderness contributions to economic growth, it is Catron County. It is only there that the impact of wilderness and federal land agency management is manifested against a very limited private industry counterpart. It is also there that elected state and federal leadership, funded by environmental groups, have pressed forward with a comprehensive environmental agenda. The wolf reintroduction is only the most recent of a series of historical affronts to its citizenry.

Could it be that Catron County has been for years the new tribal reservation of our age? It is there that those from afar dictate what is best for its residents. It is there that organized management of the commons is all encompassing. It is there that the voices and deeds of its citizens are suppressed by state and federal leadership that seem to be in an ever tighter lock step with the absentee environmental movement.

There is, though, something in Catron County that some special leader must recognize. It is there that the model of modern wilderness must be reinvented . . . or the West is in a much bigger dilemma than can be imagined.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. He is an advocate of honest human character, limited government, and self reliance. He also believes that the real Gila story has yet to be told.


White Sands Neighbor said...

The tribal reservation of our time? That is an interesting concept that needs some expansion.

Day Trekker said...

Sour grapes from the ranching community again! You people just need to go away!!! Thank goodness that our senators understand the bigger picture.

Anonymous said...

My goodness. Who is this fellow Wilmeth? Who is running for the Teague seat in southern New Mexico? Maybe we need a true breath of fresh air.

J.R. Absher said...

Many thanks for presenting this excellent analogy and interpretation, Frank. Hope to see it expanded upon...

cred said...

Extraordinarily perceptive and thought provoking article.

Anonymous said...

We have heard now too many references to the Rewilding Project to leave the subject on the fringe. Frank, you need to expand that discussion.

Anonymous said...

When Mr. Pearce takes office, he needs to become the lead in an effort to fix this problem across the West. There is no balancing mechanism. For every acre the feds lock up in some restrictive designation, a like number of acres must be released for private purchase.

Brett said...

Mr. Wilmeth is to be commended for an interesting, thurough article. I am puzzled as to why someone would even attempt to argue that limiting the productiveness of land in a rural county would make that place more productive. If you're going to make the case for wilderness, environmental concerns would be my pick.

Regarding the Teague seat, my hope is that voters decide to cap his carbon dioxide emissions in DC and trade him for Mister Pearce come November.

It is great to see farmers and ranchers organizing like this, too. This is definitely a Rangers Up Front kind of issue. Keep up the good work.

Bill R. said...

A couple of things come out of this. First, the Catron County CC must make use of the facts and hold a public hearing. Second, the Wildlands Project must be exposed to a greater extent. Mr. DuBois must lead the second issue. Push it . . .

Unknown said...

I grew up in Catron County and I can say the place has pretty much died over the last 50 years. Logging and Ranching were the industries that kept things going. They managed to kill logging (a sustainable resource) and have restricted ranching (also a sustainable resource).

Day Trekker doesn't get it. His name implies he is a weekend warrior that comes to our area once every 5 years and thinks he knows the land. He doesn't realized we love the land more because it is our home.

Because of the way the "experts" have taken care of the wilderness, one day they are going to get a fire on the western side and they are going to have a stiff wind. The whole thing will go up in smoke. That will be the bigger picture, a large blotch on the satellite map.