Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wilmeth's West

Land and People
The Value Promise
Meritorious Possession
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

    Shades of Rights
     In the debate of grazing rights in the West, the demarcation of “rights” has always been subject to controversy.  In original grazing manuals, “rights” were rather succinct and seemingly straight forward.  As competing political interests have evolved, though, efforts to redefine original intent continue unabated.
     In a recent discussion, Dona Ana County, New Mexico rancher, Tom Mobley, made the point that the Supreme Court ruling defining grazing as a privilege on federal lands is further confused by the dictionary definition of rights and privileges.  Webster defines right as a privilege and then defines privilege as a right.
     Across a broad array of human endeavors, the plenary fulfillment of obligation is often accomplished on a time line.  In matters of legal immigration, the fulfillment of the legal steps in the process is associated with time.  In the process of becoming an attorney or a surgeon, the fulfillment of requirements is predicated on time, similarly. 
     The process seems to be consistent and acceptable with few exceptions.  The accrual of rights of grazing in the West seems to be one of those glaring exceptions.  In fact, time has become a silent contradiction to the lives and the accomplishments of those stewards who are locked into perpetual state of conditional tenancy with the United States.       
    The Sweat and Tears
    There is no diary record of the day that Hinton Moss and his family arrived on the banks of the Gila River in Grant County, New Mexico.  The year was 1880 and the recorded history of the Gila Valley was very sparse.  In fact, 1880 can be considered a watershed year in the upper Gila.  Documented human endeavors became more commonplace from 1880 forward.
    Hint Moss had come from Utah in a reverse migration of sorts.  What brought him to southern New Mexico is not known, but family ties to the Gila have lasted for six generations.  Hint and wife, Lorena, lived for some time at the mouth of Ira Canyon near the south end of the old McCauley farm.  It was there that at least one daughter was born, born on the kitchen table the way things just occurred in those days. 
     Hint was gone a lot tending the family ranch west of Bald Knoll and on the bluffs east from Blue Creek.   The family would move north to a farm just south from the mouth of Dam Canyon.  That is where the kids grew up.  It was closer to school after consolidation occurred. 
     For awhile, Hap McCauley was the bus driver for the kids on that end of the river.  He was a student and started driving that model T flatbed truck with benches bolted to the floor of the bed when he was 12 years old!
    The McCauley family has been in the valley fewer years, but shares the same generational span as the Moss family.  Fred McCauley, grandson and namesake of one of the two original McCauley brothers who came from Arkansas, still lives across the river from the old Moss Place.  The McCauley Ranch is one of the great ranches of southern New Mexico.  Fred’s dad, Tom, was a cowman’s cowman.  Tom and wife, Marie, spent their lives horseback.
    Fred will be remembered for a number of things, not the least of which will be the water distribution system that he spent a good part of his adult life perfecting.  Cattle in McCauley country don’t walk far to water.  Even in the roughest country many have water within half mile walks.  That ranch is one of the few places in the West where naturally occurring maternal units of cattle can be observed on a multigenerational basis.  Since there are so many watering sites, those units have become very territorial and remain intact without the need to compete and interact at more congested water sources.
     Living History
     The Moss and McCauley families are not known by texts or projects of historical reconstruction.  They are part of the living history of the Southwest.  Memories of Tom McCauley working cattle by himself in Clark or Dix Canyons by keeping cattle moving across those big canyons by his voice and his mounted presence remind all that the skill of a cowboy was at its zenith when the country was young and people were few. 
    Love stories, humor, life and death were all part of those lives, and, yet, people still living were friends and neighbors and knew the individuals personally.  The stories were real and they have become interwoven in the land and the fabric of the community.
     As in all ranch families, there has been a great deal of attrition.  The Moss family exists only through marriages into other family names.  Hint was killed in a horse accident and his name ceased to exist as a family name in the valley.  His daughters, though, carried his memory throughout the 20th Century into the 21st dying in their mid to late ‘90s.
     Collectively, their lives became our lives.  They struggled, they laughed  . . . they endured.  Their existence wasn’t some exercise in applied science.  They weren’t arrayed into some geologic period and wiped out by a cataclysmic event.  They are not a topic of profound theory although much more can be gleaned from their existence than some extinct form of humanity.  Perhaps the importance of the past is much more profound and truthful in what we know from folks like these than the sum of all the theory and the interpretation of facts by experts.  We must, therefore, wonder why these people have been so denigrated and ridiculed by their government, the press, and the progressive movement.
     There is a Promise
     The rough hands people of the West have come to expect that their government will simply not elevate their status into a priority position amongst competing elements.  A very clear example is the promise the federal government made when the western states agreed to allow the federal ownership of lands to be altered from a matter of disposal to a matter of retention.
     In the congressional action that took place in 1976, the federal government promised to manage federal lands “in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values.”  Buried within that statement is the inclusion of the word “historic”.  Not another of the defined “values” has any clear reference to existing human beings.  In fact, all the other values can be associated to values relating to or elevated by the environmental movement. 
     Was “historic” in this context simply filler intended to cover all the bases for securing Congressional votes, or should Americans who have property rights in constant jeopardy take the inclusion of the word for what it implies?  History . . . historic . . . of major importance, momentous, remarkable, crucial, and significant!
     The Case of Adverse Possession
     Adverse possession is a method of acquiring title to land without buying or paying for it in a traditional sense.  As in the foregoing, there is a temporal component of perfecting title under adverse possession.  If there is anyone who does not think that such a legal issue generates passion, observe the press outrage when attempts are made to evict homeless folks from a grove of cottonwood trees along an established road. 
     Advocates come out of the woodworks demanding the adherence and observation of rights for those poor folks.  Legal services are offered.  Learned men stand on the steps of the local court houses and offer interviews complete with threats and demands for the acquiescence of government to address such wrongs brought to bear on these unfortunates. Hearings are held and officials diligently attempt to defuse the conflagration before it affects their standing.  Buttons are pushed, offers are made, alternatives are sought, and efforts to sooth the outrage are formulated.  The rights of the downtrodden are honored and justice is served.  Solutions are worked out and more money is spent on another governmental action.
     Meritorious Possession
     The presence of a federal grazing permittee on Western lands is the culmination of obligations fulfilled.  If that person exists, he is the possessor of a torch that was lit years ago and remains lit to this day.  That permittee is the living link to the Hinton Mosses and Fred McCauleys in our history.  It is not their fault that their government changed the rules regarding the promise to allow them to eventually acquire the lands they worked and loved.  It is not their fault that they live in a minefield of changing conditions that offer, remove, adjust, redirect, assess, and critique every move they make. 
     It is time, though, that their presence be recognized for what it is . . . the historic standard that is protected in the law as a described value.  The possession they have to rights that they have invested in and managed over time should not be subject to political whims or agendas.  They are living, breathing Americans who have arrived at this point through a gauntlet of obstacles that few understand, and fewer yet would dare to venture.
     The legal possessions that they have are perfected.  They bought and paid for them often with their lives.  Their presence must be interpreted for what it is . . . commendable.   As for the subject of their rights, if the truths were portrayed as they occurred historically, their existence long ago would have been equated to the contract they have with the land.  In any other corner of American history, a definition would have been sought . . . and it would have been termed . . . meritorious possession.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico.  “The presence of “historic” in the array of values set forth in the Declaration of Policy in FLPMA must become a fixture in grazing discussions henceforth.  It is the only value that can be extracted from the expansion of the environmental juggernaut of pursued values.  It is the only human value, but, as such, gives hope to the plight of Americans engaged in the high stakes game of stewardship of federal lands.” 


Wilmeth has done a beautiful job of blending history with current events.

I'm ensnared in current events, but prefer the history.


wBenton said...

Okay, what is the next step to push this idea? Is this a watershed or is it just a passing read?

Oracle Bill said...

We just heard Joe Delk and an Allred from New Mexico on our local Joe Dreyfuss Tucson radio program. We see this from another New Mexican. What is in the water over that direction?

Frank DuBois said...

I'm sure Joe and Bucky did a good job.

I enjoyed being on the program several months ago, and Steve Wilmeth, the author of this column, has been on the show.

It's not what we put in the water, it's what we keep out. We all have NGBS filters on our water supply. NGBS - No Government Bull Shit.

Anonymous said...

DuBois, did CJ Hadley see this? You need to prompt her to follow up along wtih any effort you now devote to the discussion. This needs to be investigated.