Vigilante Justice in the Land of Enchantment

At last, it seemed like the Forest Service was poised to do the right thing: curtail the number of cows permitted to trample the Aldo Leopold Wilderness on the infamous Diamond Bar Grazing Allotment in the Gila National Forest. The decision had been drafted, all it needed was a signature.

Then, in a last ditch effort to salvage his federal subsidies, rancher Kit Laney, owner of the Diamond Bar, convened a trail ride across the allotment, ostensibly to demonstrate his enlightened stewardship of the range. Invited along for this cantor in the desert were Forest Service staffers and legislative aides to New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici and Representative Joe Skeen. Environmentalist Susan Shock, the courageous director of Gila Watch, also joined the posse.

At one point, Laney turned to the saddle-sore congressional aides and, gesticulating wildly, pronounced: “Will I have to kill the next son-of-a-bitch who tries to tell me where I can or can’t move my cows? And if you come after me there’ll be a hundred other ranchers backing me up with guns.”

Instead of reporting Laney’s threats to the FBI—as they surely would have had eco-radical Dave Foreman made similar threats—the aides scurried back to Washington, where they urged that Senator Domenici to intercede on the rancher’s behalf. Domenici was then one of the most powerful and arrogant figures in Congress. He was also an intractable foe of grazing and mining reform on public lands. Domenici responded with an urgent call to Jim Lyons, Clinton’s undersecretary of Agriculture overseeing the Forest Service.

Lyons folded, as he had done some many times before to members of the Western congressional delegation. Within 12 hours, Lyons had ordered the Forest Service to stand down. Laney’s cows would remain on Gila Forest lands at excessively high numbers, grinding away at one of the nation’s most treasured wilderness areas. Score another victory for the proponents of vigilante justice and their quiescent reps in the Capitol.

Scenting blood, Domenici followed up this intervention on behalf of a renegade rancher by introducing a bill in the senate abolishing the last vestiges of Bruce Babbitt’s Rangeland Reform program, essentially eliminating public oversight of federal grazing lands.

None of this came as an epiphany to those familiar with the strange political climate of southern New Mexico, a rancid petri dish of the county supremacy movement. Rancher Laney’s father was a co-founder of the Catron County Militia. One his comrades was Dick Manning, a rancher and miner who has repeatedly threatened federal and state officials and environmentalists with bodily harm. In the mid-1990s, Manning was caught stockpiling ammonium nitrate—the same explosive material Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City—by investigators with the New Mexico Department of Environmental Quality.  Manning’s excuse: he used it as an explosive in his mining operations, a grotesquely toxic enterprise that should have been shut down years ago.

Catron County, of course, passed the nation’s first so-called custom-and-culture laws, quaint little statutes that seek to protect over-grazing and mining operations from federal oversight by saying such abusive practices are part of the traditional lifestyle of the rural West. (Of course, these ordinances only applied Anglos, traditional Hispanic and Native American uses of the land were ignored.) Catron County passed kooky ordinances requiring environmentalists to register with the county clerk’s office and urging every homeowner to purchase a handgun. The County also announced that it had the authority to arrest federal officials to keep them from enforcing environmental laws. “Federal and state agents threaten the life, liberty, and happiness of the people of Catron CoUnty,” declared the county commissioners in a 1992 ordinance. “They present a clear and present danger to the land and livelihood of every man, woman, and child. A state of emergency prevails that calls for devotion and sacrifice.”

Down there the local press regularly printed threats against environmentalists. One missive published in 1995 urged “responsible citizens” to string up local enviros from old growth cottonwood trees. Another recommended strapping irascible activists to boulders and rolling them into the Gila River during flood season.

These tactics of brute force intimidation were sanctioned at the highest levels of the New Mexico government. Only nine days after the Oklahoma City bombing, New Mexico governor Gary Johnson—a putative libertarian—invited the leaders of the state’s five militias to his office in Santa Fe for a friendly chat.

These southwestern militia commandos eschew the camo and field jackets of their brethren in the northern latitudes for Stetsons and rattlesnake skin boots. Governor Johnson emerged from the session and duly anointed the New Mexico militias benign, if not benevolent, enterprises, saying, “These folks are responsible, reasonable and lawful.” Johnson went even further, announcing that he was ready to call on them “for help in times of emergency, such as natural disasters, terrorist threats and civil unrest.”

Like the next Earth First! Gathering in Jemez Springs, perhaps?

To be continued…

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at:

(This article is excerpted from Green Scare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.)




Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3