Citizens work to cut conflict with logging operation

Eileen Garvin
New Mexico Business Weekly Managing Editor


Editor's note : This story is the fourth in a series on small towns across the state. From Tucumcari to Zuni Pueblo and from Chama to Santa Teresa, we'll look at economic development in all corners of New Mexico.

If you want to see the kind of toll losing a major industry can take on a community, just look to Reserve, N.M., in the 1990s. The decades-old economic foundation of the area -- large diameter logging -- crumbled when environmentalists forced a moratorium on logging in the Gila National Forest. Stone Forest Industries, which had harvested the woods for half a century, ceased mill operations in Reserve, the seat of Catron County, in 1993.

Loggers, U.S. Forest Service workers and others in related industries lost their jobs. Tensions mounted, pitting neighbor against neighbor. At one point the county made national news when commissioners passed a law requiring every household to own a gun.

The economic strain on area residents eventually became apparent to the county's only doctor, Mark Unverzagt.

In 1995, Unverzagt began to notice that many of his patients -- loggers and environmentalists alike -- were suffering from stress and anxiety. Depression, substance abuse, marital strife and violence escalated among the residents of the rural town. Unverzagt was asked to participate in a support group for unemployed forest service workers, but, "It became clear to me after the second or third meeting that it would be hard to do anything meaningful without a larger initiative," he says.

Unverzagt called on Dr. Ben Daitz, a professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of New Mexico, who was acting as a health consultant for the county. And he called Melinda Smith at the New Mexico Center for Dispute Resolution.

Together they formed the Catron County Citizens Group, an unlikely coalition of ranchers, environmentalists, former loggers and U.S. Forest Service employees and other community members, whose goal was to increase economic development in the rural area. They decided they needed jobs, and they needed to work together to get them.

"We put our heads together about what to do about all of this. We decided to organize a meeting of the combatants, as it were," Daitz says.

It wasn't easy. The group's major achievement, at first, was to simply get the polarized factions in the same room. Once that happened, they focused mainly on building bridges and easing tension within the community. (Daitz made a documentary of the conflict and resolution process called "Whose Home on the Range?" The film has won national and international accolades.)

The group eventually decided its mission was "to come together to openly and honestly discuss and deal with the diverse situations we face, finding common ground from our different points of view to ensure an economically, socially, and environmentally sound future for us all."


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