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Alone In The Wilderness
Bil Gilbert
October 03, 1983
As a result of his words, actions—and inaction—James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, has lost support, even in the West
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October 03, 1983

Alone In The Wilderness

As a result of his words, actions—and inaction—James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, has lost support, even in the West

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Burnett's interest in opening land is avocational in the sense that it's a labor of love, or hate, but he's now devoting as much time to it as to his business. "I'm just one of those hardheads that doesn't like somebody who thinks he's a big shot to push people around," he says.

New Mexico's Chaves and Lincoln counties, where Burnett fights most of his land battles, are together about the size of Connecticut. As in most of the West, a map showing ownership of land in these counties is a patchwork, with sections of private, state and federal tracts occurring in free-form patterns, which are difficult to follow on the ground. Boundaries are marked only by widely scattered signs and obscure brass surveyor's caps pounded down in the cholla and prickly bushes. The largest local landholder is the BLM, which leases most of its holdings in chunks of 10,000 acres and more to cattlemen and sheep ranchers. Access to these leased tracts is provided by roads that are either within the BLM boundaries or administered by the counties.

Traveling across a boulder-strewn county road, Burnett says, "It ain't much, but she's ours." After three or four miles the road is crossed by a fence line and a gate that is secured with a spider web of wire but isn't locked. To one side is a formidable no trespassing sign, and a mile or so beyond that some ranch buildings are visible. "Now what would you think, if you was to come on this?" Burnett asks.

"I'd think I'd better stay on this side of the gate if I didn't want to get my ass shot off."

"That's pretty much what some fellows that called me last fall thought, only they also thought there is a whole lot of public land on the other side of the fence. They were right. It's private on both sides here, but this road runs down this little pie-shaped wedge here on the map. [Burnett travels with a full set of topographical sheets.] That wedge gives you access to about 12,000 acres of public land. What they did is close up an old gate further down and then wire this one shut to close off all that land. When I heard, I came out. I had a surveyor friend with me, and we studied the map until we were exactly sure about where we were.

"I went through the gate and just waited, giving them a chance to see me from the ranch. About 10 minutes passed and then two vehicles and four people come boiling up. The foreman said I'd torn down his gate. I said now let's not b.s. each other. Then he said I had moved some rocks along the fence. I said I sure had. They were covering up the brass surveyor's caps, which were what we wanted to find, so we could be sure this was public land. Then the owner, a rich fellow from down in Texas, pitched in saying that he's had this place a bunch of years. He said, 'You got all them maps. If you're so damn smart, just find the surveyor's caps.' We did just that, and they don't like it much, but people can use that gate as much as they want now."

Burnett says he doesn't want anybody hurt in such confrontations. He first makes absolutely sure about the lay of the land and then tries to speak softly. However, he also carries a .357 Magnum. Burnett calculates that during the last year he has opened up 50,000 acres of land from which the public had previously been illegally barred. However, he believes that there are many more thousands of acres behind locked gates and that there's a continuing effort to lock up more public lands.

"No doubt about it," Burnett says. "It got worse because of Watt and that bunch of his in Washington coming down so hard against the environment. I think Watt is the most dangerous man we've ever had in the country."

RADICAL RETROSPECT

Noel Kincaid is in his 60s, and until a few years ago he ran sheep and cattle in southern New Mexico and west Texas. Now retired from ranching in Carlsbad, N. Mex., Kincaid thinks what ails America is that the people have become too dependent on the government. They sit around and wait for it to deal with their problems while in the days of his youth people acted much more independently. Americans have become too soft and docile, Kincaid thinks.

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