Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Fleeing New Mexico’s small, rural towns

     About the first thing anyone mentions here is the new 24/7 gas pump that Richard Hazen opened this summer on N.M. 39, Roy’s main drag.
    The new credit card-operated pump is big news, because Hazen operates the only gas station in Harding County, which covers 2,126 square miles and is nearly 40 percent larger than Rhode Island.
    “The 24-hour gas pump is a big deal,” said Hazen, 56, a retired superintendant of Roy schools. “I don’t need the money. I did this just to help the community.”
    The gas pump is a big deal, because the nearest gas stations are 35 miles west in Wagon Mound, 45 miles north in Springer or 68 miles southeast in Logan.
    A retired educator’s willingness to pump gas and fix tires helps explain why this high plains town of 234 has managed to survive decades of population losses, recurring droughts and economic setbacks dating back to the Dust Bowl.
    But like other rural counties across the nation, the ones in northeastern New Mexico have had little success persuading young people to stick around after high school or to return after college.
    Audra Rivera, 17, was Roy High School’s only senior when school resumed on Aug. 14.
    “I really like it a lot, because I get a lot of one-on-one with my teachers,” Rivera said. “But it would be kind of nice to have some more kids in our school, like in my grade.”...
    Roy sprang to life in the first decade of the 20th century after the El Paso and Southern Railroad, later the Southern Pacific, drove a spur from Tucumcari to a Santa Fe railway siding north of Springer to transport coal from the Raton area.
    The railroad opened the land to ranchers and farmers, swelling Harding County’s population to a peak of 4,421 in 1930, just before the Dust Bowl walloped Harding and other plains counties in eastern New Mexico.
    The Southern Pacific halted train traffic through Harding after coal mining ended in Colfax County in the 1950s.
    High plains counties, from De Baca north to Union and Colfax in New Mexico’s northeastern corner, once relied on industries such as ranching, farming, mining and railroads that have either died or are struggling, Brunner said.
    “That economic system is just broken down,” Brunner said. “The question is, where do they go next?”
Strong family ties and a love of rural and ranching life inspires some to stay put despite hardships and a lack of job opportunities.
    “I grew up with a bunch of kids around here that are gone now,” Harding County rancher Jeff Byrd said. “I honestly didn’t think that I would be the one who would come back.”
    Byrd had a choice. The New Mexico State University graduate worked as an engineer at the Navajo Refining Co. in Artesia for 13 years. He returned to ranching after his father died in 2001, leaving his mother to run the family ranch by herself...
    The multiyear drought has trimmed the size of Byrd’s herd to just 44 cattle, down from more than 100 head he has raised in better years. “Water is the limiting factor for how many cattle you can run,” he said.
Byrd’s predicament is common to ranchers across New Mexico, where the number of cattle has declined by more than half in recent years to an estimated 500,000 head, down from about 1.2 million in 2008.
    Despite the hardships, ranching remains a mainstay of the high plains economy. Ranching income accounted for 40 percent of Harding County’s total personal income of $33.8 million in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
    By early July, drought had reduced Byrd’s ranch to an unbroken expanse of brown, dead grass. He planned to sell off all his remaining cattle, but several good rains later in the month returned green shoots to the land, allowing him to keep his small herd.
    “You’ve got to live through it. Survive it,” he said. “You sell off the weak cows so you end up with a better herd. That’s the theory, anyway.”
    Fortunately, Byrd has family support. His wife is a teacher and engineering consultant, and her income helps sustain the couple and their two young sons, ages 7 and 8.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"her income helps sustain"? That's a joke, her income ALLOWS him to practice his expensive hobby.