Storm Clouds Building
I found myself visiting my grandmothers this morning. Of course, that was in my mind since both are long departed, but I sought their comforting memory. I needed to talk to them.
By the time we share this, the Zinke monument recommendations might be known, but I had no idea what to expect this morning. This was the day he was supposed to make his recommendations known. I was anxious. No, I was worried sick. The actual result was still anticipated as akin to the call from the doctor asking for a face-to-face on an exam report.
Just give it to me and quit fooling around!
Storm Clouds Building
I was interviewed yesterday about the future of agriculture. I found my words to be pessimistic, but there is reason. There is nothing to suggest otherwise. Our county remains on track to recruit fewer and fewer home grown stewards. I have wailed against that, but the facts remain. We can’t offer enough upside. What kids we do send off to college seem invariably resigned to off Ag tracks or the dubious if not dutiful social obligation of seeking law, marketing, academic or policy related specialties. Too few want to be at the heart of our real world, that of production agriculture.
The truth is too few of them understand the real implications.
I am not sure my grandmothers did either. Both of them were tireless workers, but there were never enough pennies around to practice anything but pinching them. One thing they could agree with was to put no trust in anything this government might promise.
They came through the Depression. In truth, their lives didn’t change much from before, during, or after it. There was no such thing as vacation nor was there any significance in “weekends”.
I have often wondered what they thought of the government work programs and the urban visitors that came to their community during the WPA and CCC times. Talking to those who remember, the view of the results of those Depression era work programs was positive. The programs left valuable conservation structures scattered across the landscape. In fact, many of them remain the only substantive work ever installed.
The matter of government land domination, though, was something else. In private land starved southern New Mexico, the horrors of disruption and displacement became institutional.
The eviction of ranchers from federal lands has left deep and lasting resentment by those who understand what took place. The nonsense of ranching families displacing an endemic native population in the settlement period starting in 1880 is ludicrous. The Apaches that were extant at that time remained migratory following the patterns of seasonality that yielded food and supplies. Only those pioneers that arrived prior to 1885 witnessed any suggestion of that conflict. What they endured was the raw arm of nature. Drought, the absence of markets and infrastructure, and the sheer magnitude of the work to create homes and communities were the overwhelming tasks they faced.
What they accomplished has largely been lost by first hand accounts. Even the recorded history of the era doesn’t do justice to the immensity of their efforts. The vast majority of writers were simply observers rather than participants.
Only the voices of those impacted remain, and those examples are few.
After the eviction of the Shelley family, the first family of American modern wilderness, from the Gila, the outside world was oblivious. The language in the Wilderness Act that applies to grazing and its allowance to continue where it existed at the time of the signing in 1964, though, is a direct result of their plight. They were ripped from their homeland after 60 years of which the first 15 years did not even exist with the invention of the national forest itself. For twenty eight of those years, they didn’t even have congressional representation.
Tom Shelley’s words, though, ring in infamy.
Reduced by permit from 5000 head of cattle to 700 (following the Depression and the settlement of the Peter Shelley estate) with the receipt of a letter signed by a low level official, the forest supervisor told him he had to further divide the permit or he would take action to further reduce it. So, Tom divided the permit among his four sons and himself.
So, I broke it up five ways between my self and four boys but we didn’t have enough permit to make a living on, none of us had any cattle hardly. My youngest boy had bought a small bunch just before he died so that left four boys and myself, five to share the permit. I had the 916 brand after them fellows (collection agents salvaging loan collateral following the Depression) gathered all they could but they paid off the debt but I didn’t have any cattle and no money to buy with until a friend of mine … was having to sell (a) bunch. They were in pretty bad shape. He told me if I would take them I could have them for thirty-five dollars a head and the calves were to be throwed in and Iasked him how many calves would there be, he said there would be thirty, anyway, and maybe more and he would give me five years to pay for them. So I took them, I branded forty one calves the first year so that is how I got started back in the cow business. I paid for them in three years.
The tenor of the voices was the same in the eviction of the Tularosa Basin ranchers when the government rocket men came looking for land. The only difference in their evictions was their voices were recorded in an official hearing.
Ten of them spoke. John W. Harliss of Bingam was one of the first. He struggled mightily trying to describe in a few minutes why his 50 year tenure was important.
The government might as well cut my throat as take away my ranch. Ranching is all I know.
An Indian, Charley Madrid’s presence in testimony was described as a thundercloud.
They (the White Sands ranchers) are not money lovers. They love our country, but by God you’d better pay them fairly if you take their land. We are treating (these) displaced persons worse than foreigners in the same position.
In the end, they were all gone. The Cox family, the Lees, the Lewises, the Grays, the McDonalds and hundreds more were served with evictions that summarily sent them packing. In one round, the families were given 20 days to convince the government their presence was important. Of course, they failed.
Only John Prather stood his ground. His family had been there since 1883 and the only difference between him and his Texas relations was that they owned their lands. They weren’t conditional tenants who were allowed to work their entire lives until the federal agents convened and sent them away.
John served notice he was going to die in his own home.
On August 7, 1957, the government sent three armed and embarrassed deputy U.S. marshals to evict him. They caught him in his yard before he could get to his gun. He pulled his pocket knife to defend himself.
“Just let me get my gun and we’ll square off and have at it,” the 82 year old rancher told them. “I’m ready any time you are.”
They talked for three hours, but they couldn’t convince him to concede and he couldn’t convince them to let him get his gun and settle the deal. The rest is history. Mr. Prather got 15 acres of his own private land, his house, and the agreement he could live there until he died.
The rest, the 75 years of hard labor, love, and history, was taken.
That parallel history demonstrates that the ranchers of the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument will be the next generation of ranchers evicted from their lands. The outcome of the Zinke report to the White House remains pending, but the stage has been set.
It remains dark outside. The sun won’t be up for an hour. Without the confusion of the day, my thoughts can go where I choose. The voices of my grandmothers are a stopping place. Perhaps that is the best answer to the interview and why there is nothing more fundamental and honorable than production agriculture in its most pure form. It is the people, the commitment to hard work, and the creation of something the individual alone has become responsible for that is timeless.
That is what they all said in their own words. My grandmothers, the wilderness ranchers of the Gila, their Tularosa Basin counterparts, and the current Dona Ana defenders … it is that basic.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “No response is likely an omen. Even if it is good, will it be too little, too late?”