Sunday, May 14, 2017
Outside Looking In
Outside Looking In
Real Owners of Natural Resources
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
We were witnesses to the disappearance of our identity this week.
It started with the election results for the local conservation district board of supervisors. The two positions up for reelection were lost to the tide of progressive politics that has become the force du pouvoir in Dona Ana County, New Mexico. The customs and the culture of the area are intended for change and the brokers are largely newcomers who project to know more than the sweaty commoners. They pride themselves on their diversity and their academic capacity, and they intend to deliver their exclusive brand of environmental protection. In order to qualify for positions on conservation district boards, they claim they are owners of natural resources. Indeed, they are owners of the land their homes sit on, but the creators of this law had little expectation that cotton farmers, chile growers, dairy operators, and ranchers along with the resources they are obligated to manage and put to use would be ruled by urban home owners made up of bored retirees, lawyers, philosophers, and left wing radicals.
No sir, there is zero chance the spirit of the law was crafted with that intention.
The respect I have for those who came before us grows. Array any characteristic and it deserves praise. Start with courage and end with courage and the results of their dedication are astounding. Outside of the river valley, there were few permanent residents before 1878. The limitation was water and the real threat of Apaches. Many examples of the latter exist including the killing of Emmett Mills at his Los Tres Hermanos Ranch headquarters 20 miles outside of Franklin (modern day El Paso).
Subsistence farming and trade were the drivers of the meager economy. Even before 1860, though, the promise of area’s agriculture was touted. When Waterman Lily Ormsby, Jr. recorded his experiences on the very first Butterfield Overland Mail coach traveling from St. Louis to San Francisco, he wrote about local crops. He was particularly interested in the grapes and the libations produced thereof. In fact, his emphasis was so apparent that one cannot avoid the conclusion that his arrival in the Rio Grande Valley was spent closely examining the bottom of empty glasses. He liked the local red grapes, the white grape counterparts, and the golden colored “Pass Whiskey”, the brandy made from a mix of grapes. He did note the latter could cause severe headaches for those “who are not used to it”.
Ormsby also revealed the great constraints of existence. That started with the uncontrolled Rio Grande. When he visited Mesilla in 1858, the river was nothing more than “an insignificant puddle, being very low”. Two years later, though, Reverend Tallack recorded it was “four hundred feet wide, twelve feet deep and very rapid”. By 1865, a huge flood had shifted the river so far west that Mesilla was left “miles east of it”. Indeed, the Mesilla Valley offered grand potential, but it wasn’t until enterprising men damned the river at Elephant Butte early the next century that real civilized conditions were created and the agricultural universe the Mesilla Valley began to ignite.
Few people had the desire or the gumption to try to attempt to venture outside of the river valley. That was the area west of present day Las Cruces that Ormsby described as the most difficult and dangerous of his entire trip. That was stretch that Butterfield Stage horses were swapped for mules because of travel difficulties. That was also the stretch that gave permanent historical markers at places like Rough and Ready, Ft. Mason, Magdalena Gap, Neire Springs, Goodsight, and Cooke’s Spring. It was generally known by the Mexican government as “no man’s land” before the Gadsden Purchase and up until the Texans came riding in looking for grass and any opportunity to stake a claim. Those folks had endured enough poverty in their Lone Star lives to challenge anything. All they had ever known was controlled violence and their initial forays into New Mexico were no different.
Their interest in the state was promoted in part by Texas cavalrymen under the command of Lieutenant John Baylor who had seen the area during the Civil War. They had captured Mesilla in 1861. On August 1 of that year, Baylor had issued “The Proclamation to the People of the Territory of Arizona” taking possession of the territory for the Confederacy with Mesilla as the capital and himself as the governor.
“The social and political condition of Arizona (combined modern Arizona and New Mexico combined) being little short of general anarchy, and the people being literally destitute of law, order and protection,” he had written. But, they came and began to develop water and permanent residences. Everyone must remember, without permanent water wildlife, humanity, and livestock alike cannot occupy great stretches of the grasslands except seasonally when monsoon or winter rains fall.
The Butterfield Trail then became the thoroughfare for settlers and their livestock. That effort was simply staggering. By modern standards there is no comparison. The horrors of driving mixed cattle herds alone cannot be fathomed by modern citizens.
The farmers, the ranchers, the miners, the wood cutters, and the service industries all became permanent residents and they created the uniqueness that makes southern New Mexico what it is.
Outside Looking In
The Soil and Water Conservation Act, the state law that sets forth the elected bodies that oversee programs intended to develop soil and water resources and protect the local tax base, was not intended for secular urban overseers. The loophole that now allows this remnant form of local governance to be taken from stewards of the land must be closed.
The issue is simple.
Those stewards who remain on the land simply don’t have the numbers to defend the law as it was intended. Legislators must act or another minority contingent of society will have no voice and, eventually, no resources. They will simply be outside looking in at the very legislative effort that was written with the real ownership of natural resources in mind.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “What is the remedy when conservation boards begin implementing programs that destroy the local tax base?”