Cities and farmers fighting Endangered Species Act
RESERVE, N.M. -- The sawmill of Reserve was closed here in 1992, taking about $8.6 million out of the local economy and sending about three-quarters of Reserve's 400 residents packing.
Catron County residents blame their community's downfall on the federal government's Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The sawmill's eventual closure began with environmentalists' efforts to protect the Mexican spotted owl.
``They started closing down logging in the national forest in 1989 and by 1992 it was all over,'' Danny Fryar, former logger and Catron County manager, said recently at the Reserve mercantile he runs. ``Environmental lawsuits just about destroyed us and they haven't quit yet.''
Businesses have gone bankrupt. Classes at the Reserve Public Schools were reduced to four days a week. The population of Reserve was about 400; now it's about 100.
Such stories are familiar in rural New Mexico, but now efforts to protect the silvery minnow have city folks in Albuquerque and Santa Fe decrying the Endangered Species Act as they try to protect city water supplies.
The act is intended to protect and preserve animal and plant species on the brink of extinction.
In New Mexico it has frequently been enforced by environmentalists going to court. There have been at least 134 lawsuits filed in New Mexico since 1995 by two environmental organizations -- Forest Guardians in Santa Fe and the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.
``I'm very bitter toward the environmentalists,'' said Reserve resident Wilford Estrada, who spent 34 years hauling logs out of the forest. ``We went to sleep and they snuck up on us.''
Environmentalists defend their actions as being better for the ecology and people.
``The economy (in those areas) is greater today than it was four or five years ago,'' says John Horning, executive director of Forest Guardians in Santa Fe. ``Healthy environments create good jobs and healthy wages.''
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed 28 animals and 13 plants as endangered in New Mexico.
The Catron County story has been repeated, to varying degrees, in many parts of New Mexico. From the spotted owl and Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest willow flycatcher, Pecos bluntnose shiner and the silvery minnow.
Developments in Albuquerque don't surprise Otero County rancher John Conner, who is faced with cattle grazing restrictions because of endangered plants.
``People are starting to realize that cowboys aren't the only people affected by the act,'' he said.
Two-thirds of the registered voters statewide surveyed in a Journal poll in mid-September, when asked to think of recent developments involving the Endangered Species Act, said they thought the act goes too far.
John Fowler, coordinator of the Range Improvement Task Force at New Mexico State University, produced a 20-page study of the economic consequences of the Endangered Species Act in New Mexico.
Fowler says the intent of the act -- to establish ``genetic continuity, critical habitat, ecological resource conditions and species richness'' -- is beyond reproach.
Such conditions ``are essential to long-term environmental well-being, from which our society benefits,'' he said.
``However, the application and local interpretation of the ESA quickly leave the arena of sound science and common sense,'' he wrote.
The intent of the act is often lost in the hard-handed approach of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he wrote.
Landowners are frequently discouraged from cooperating. They ``should not be manipulated by a string of disincentives that make the individual cringe at the words threatened and endangered,'' the study says.
In the face of repeated lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service continues working toward partnerships in administering endangered species, said Tom Bauer, assistant regional director in Albuquerque.
``Sometimes we've had greater success when we find partners before the species is put on the list,'' he said. ``That's because when we have to place a species on the list, it's a sad day, and it's a failure.''
He said the agency would like to see more cooperation to keep species off the list and make the Endangered Species Act work.
Bauer points to the peregrine falcon as a species that was sufficiently recovered in New Mexico to be removed from the endangered list.
In January, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver will review a decision by U.S. District Judge James Parker to release stored water for the silvery minnow.
The city of Albuquerque, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the state will argue the water should be conserved for humans.
San Acacia farmer Gordon Herkenhoff said if the decision to give the minnows priority on the Rio Grande water is upheld, the only water left in the state will be irrigation water, and no water will remain for development.
Herkenhoff said there might be an ironic twist for environmentalists in the minnow battle that could lead to their downfall.
``The water fight used to be between the environmentalists and the farmers,'' he said, ``but now it's turned into the environmentalists versus some mad Albuquerque housewives. I think that may be the end of them.''
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