New Mexico County Fights Feds Over Environmental Control

Editor's note: This article was written in 1994. I have not followed up to see what happened later.

The West has always been the symbol of individualism, and has often been the site of anti-federal government sentiment. Starting around 1993, the rising trend was the "county movement," which rejects federal control of public lands.

As reported by Charles McCoy in the January 3, 1994, Wall Street Journal, cattle ranchers reacted quite negatively when the Clinton administration proposed restricting grazing on federal lands.

The center of the controversy is Catron County, New Mexico. Like many Western counties, most of Catron County is public lands -- 80% in fact. Now some might wonder what a supposedly capitalist country is doing owning 80% of the land, but that's not what the hoopla is about.

The argument made by county movement activists is that the federal government illegally gained control of public lands in the 1800s, so they have no right to regulate their use today. More than a hundred counties, Catron County being the first, have passed ordinances prohibiting the Forest Service from enforcing land use regulations. Catron also passed laws requiring heads of households to own firearms and requiring environmentalists to register with the county. (Note: a Catron resident sent me an e-mail disputing that these resolutions were passed.)

Sixteen of Nevada's seventeen counties have passed county-movement laws. The phenonena has even arisen in counties in Michigan and North Carolina.

A county-movement ordinance in Idaho was declared unconsitutional by an Idaho state court, to date the only such law to be tested in court.

What county movementeers are really after is continued federal subsidies for cattle grazing. Like rice farming in the desert, cattle ranching in Nevada is only possible with taxpayer subsidies. Environmentalists, with more influence in the Clinton administration, sought to end grazing, partly by eliminating the subsidies.

Nonetheless, the county movement is one of many substrains of antigovernment sentiment that threatens to ignite into violence. Ranchers and other proponents have threatened environmentalists and federal agents, are armed and are prepared to defend what they consider their way of life.

Such battles can only be expected from political control of economic resources. Only by privatizing public lands, and letting the market decide what use will be made of them, will hostility be defused.