What Would Tony Merten Think About Our Situation Today?

Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo 1886
Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three warriors, 1886 (Wikipedia)

On Saturday, March 2, 1996, I was surprised to receive a large, padded envelope in the mail. The return address showed it had been sent from New Mexico by someone named Tony Merten. I didn’t know who that was until I opened the envelope and found a bright red t-shirt with a large black graphic on its front.  The image was a copy of the famous 1886 photo of the hostile Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three of his warriors, taken in Cañon de los Embudos in the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico during their peace talks with U.S. General George Crook. There was also some text surrounding the image on the t-shirt that read, “MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COWBOYS.”

There wasn’t a note in the package, but the t-shirt reminded me that I’d met Tony at an environmental workshop on public lands grazing at Arizona State University a few weeks earlier, the first weekend of February. The event was sponsored by the Arizona Grazing Clearinghouse, a loose consortium of local public lands grazing activists. I was a founding member of that group and had been one of the featured speakers at the workshop. Prior to that event I’d never met or heard of Tony, but he came up to me after I finished my bit and introduced himself. He complimented me on my presentation and also said that he appreciated all the articles I’d written on the topic and was glad to finally meet me in person.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been recognized for my work. In 1993 I’d been  chosen by the National Wildlife Federation as Arizona’s representative to go to Washington, D.C., for several days as part of a campaign to lobby Congress for public lands range reform. And I was one of the local environmentalists selected to sit on the panel with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1994 when he visited Phoenix to discuss his Rangeland Reform ’94  proposals. But it was quite memorable to have a stranger seek you out at a crowded meeting to shake your hand and compliment you in person.

Several days after receiving the t-shirt I was shocked to learn that Tony had been found dead at his remote home in rural southern New Mexico from an apparent suicide. The news story said that Tony had been under suspicion by local authorities for shooting about a dozen cattle grazing on public land near his house, and that he’d recently sent letters to friends implying that he was going to kill himself. One of those folks had notified the Luna County Sheriff’s office and on February 28 they discovered Tony was sitting dead in the greenhouse behind his house with a pistol in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. He’d obviously been dead for several days. I realized that sending me the t-shirt was one of the last things he’d done, but more importantly, I couldn’t understand why he had killed himself. I decided to keep the t-shirt to remember him.

I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t understand why Tony had killed himself. One of his friends, Will Baker, was a writer. He was so puzzled by Tony’s suicide that he published a book about it in 2000 titled Tony and the Cows. The book included more details about the official investigation into Tony’s death. The effort to identify the killer of the cattle began on February 15 when their carcasses were discovered. Investigators visited the few homes in the area later that day to ask if anyone had seen or heard anything, and Tony’s house was one of them. Tony denied any knowledge of the shootings. The investigators found more evidence the next day and it seemed to point to Tony. They stopped at his place to talk to him again, and were soon joined by the rancher who had owned the cattle. Tony became defensive and the conversations ended.

The following day, February 17, Tony penned the letter to his friends wherein he wrote that humans were destroying the Earth’s ecosystem and he saw “no hope” for the planet. “It is better to check out now than sometime later,” he explained. “Tell everyone I loved them all.” Tony may have killed himself later that day, or another day afterwards, but the official date on his death certificate is February 27.

A few days ago I was cleaning out my dresser and at the bottom of one of the drawers I came across the t-shirt Tony had sent me. I noticed, for the first time, that it’s size was extra large, which made me think that Tony had probably worn it, as he had been a large, athletic man.

Finding the t-shirt also renewed my bewilderment about why Tony had killed himself. Baker suggested in his book that Tony had been very lonely because he lived out in the Chihuahuan Desert by himself and hadn’t had a girlfriend in more than a year. But I decided I would use modern information technology to search through public records online for more information about Tony.

I discovered that his given name was George Anthony Merten. He was called Tony because his father’s first name was George too. He was born in 1952 in Los Angeles and grew up in West Covina, a suburb of LA. He had two brothers and three sisters, and was a star wrestler at West Covina’s Edgewood High School. He subsequently wrestled for the University of Redlands, in nearby San Bernardino County. My online research also discovered that Tony was divorced, and had no children.

Tony Merten
Tony Merten, May 1981 (Marce Guerrein)

On April 12, 1980, a  group of 37 people left San Francisco with the intent to backpack across the entire U.S. They traversed 13 states before finishing at Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park on May 27, 1981.  Tony was one of the hikers interviewed there by a newspaper reporter covering the event for the The Baltimore Sun.

“I wish it could go on forever,” he told her. He said that he’d left the U.S. Army, where he’d achieved the rank of lieutenant, in order to join the hike.* “I have achieved autonomy in my life,” he explained, and said that the hike had given him freedom from “boredom, routine, and authority.” Financial solvency was the key, he told her, and he explained he’d achieved it by saving most of his Army pay.

When Tony died he was a leader of the Southern New Mexico Group of the of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, and an active member of many other environmental groups. Perhaps environmental activism had become the most important thing in his life, and when it looked like it was going to be taken away from him, he decided to end it? But part of his decision to die obviously came from his belief that humans were irrevocably destroying the Earth’s ecosystem. So, in honor of Tony, let’s compare the current situation with the way things were back in 1996.

In regards to the specific issue of livestock grazing on Western public lands, today’s situation isn’t great, but it’s better than the bad old days, when public land managers routinely ignored environmental laws in favor of the ranchers. The fees ranchers pay to graze their cattle on public land were never increased to match the rates paid for private grazing land. But due to the steady pressure applied by local grazing activists, accompanied by lawsuits from conservation groups like Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, existing environmental laws were finally applied to many grazing allotment management plans – despite strong opposition from ranchers.

In Arizona, for example, many perennial streams on public land have been protected from livestock damage and forage utilization rates on numerous upland pastures have been limited to conservative levels. Public land managers have also started admitting that some areas, like hot deserts, aren’t suited for grazing. And conservation groups have “bought out” ranchers holding grazing permits for public lands that needed to be permanently retired from grazing.

But these days it’s costing the taxpayers more than ever to subsidize public lands ranchers because millions of dollars are now available to them through Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grants. And well-intentioned but misguided people are still promoting the junk science of Holistic Resource Management (HRM) grazing schemes. Furthermore, there’s a persistent, but small, number of right-wing kooks, like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, that are ideologically opposed to the concept of public lands, and think they should be turned over to the states or local governments.

Overall, however, there have been significant improvements in livestock grazing management on the nation’s public lands, especially those with sensitive resources. This was accomplished by a generation of dedicated Western environmentalists. Some of the major contributors, like Tom Lusting, Joe Feller, and Bob Ohmart, are already gone. Their achievements are significant because livestock grazing is the most pervasive use of our public lands, with about 27,000 permittees grazing livestock on about 270 million acres.

But these improvements in the management of livestock grazing on public lands are threatened, like so much other progress, by the anti-environmental agenda of the Donald Trump administration. Since he took office in 2017 some Forest Service staff in Arizona have arbitrarily classified controversial livestock management decisions as categorically exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public review process. And the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing a national pilot project that turns livestock management over to grazing permittees, without any public input, in order to give ranchers more “flexibility” because they know “better than anyone” what to do.

If Tony were alive today I presume he would want to oppose Trump’s regressive environmental policies. Maybe, however, he would think activism is entirely futile now because there’s no hope for the planet because human caused climate change from the burning of fossil fuels is accelerating in alarming ways that weren’t predicted. I wish he was still here though, so that we could try and convince him to help us fight.

* According to the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives, George Anthony Merten served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 06/24/77 to 06/23/80, achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant.

The Battle of Turret Peak, 1873

General. George Crook
Gen. George Crook (Wikipedia)

On November 15, 1872, U.S. Army General George Crook launched a military offensive against the hostile Yavapai and Tonto Apache Indians hiding in the rugged landscape of central Arizona. His troops went out from the area’s army forts with orders to “hunt them down until the last hostile is killed or captured.” A year earlier he had ordered all the local Indians to report to a reservation or be considered hostile and “punished accordingly.” He made sure the message was widely delivered, but there had been little response. The troops assigned to finally inflict the punishment were told, “no excuse will be accepted for abandoning a trail; if the horses play out, follow the enemy afoot as long as your men can stand.”

Skeleton Cave, Salt River Canyon, Arizona
Skeleton Cave about 1925, Salt River Canyon, Arizona (American Archeology and Ethonology)

The first major success of the campaign occurred on December 28, when Crook’s troops discovered a Yavapai stronghold consisting of a large cave in the depths of the Salt River Canyon. They took up positions around the mouth of the cave, and when its occupants refused to surrender, they poured in a heavy fire. When it was over they found 76 bodies inside, including women and children. There were 20 survivors, all of them women and children and most of them wounded. They were taken to Fort McDowell. The chief of this band, Nanni-chaddi, was among the dead. He had bragged that no soldiers would ever find his camp.

Turett Peak, Arizona (Jeff Burgess)
View of Turett Peak from the west. (Jeff Burgess)

The second major success of the campaign occurred on the morning of March 27, 1873, at Turret Peak. This lone mountain was also a Yavapai stronghold. It had been the destination, in fact, of a wounded brave who had escaped from the Battle of Salt River Canyon.

Members of the Turret Peak band had tortured and killed three white men on March 11th. Crook’s troops had made a big effort to track down the killers without success until his Indian scouts captured a Yavapai woman they “intimidated” into showing them the way. The soldiers crept up the sides of Turret Peak during the night and at dawn they rushed the hostile camp on top, achieving complete surprise. At least two dozen Indians were killed and the surviving women and children were taken captive.

The Attack Against the Yavapais on Turret Peak Was a Turning Point
Summit of Turret Peak, looking north. (Jeff Burgess)

These two defeats at strongholds long thought impregnable broke the back of Yavapai resistance in central Arizona. In April a Yavapai chief named Cha-lipun appeared at Camp Verde and unconditionally surrendered to Crook. He explained in Spanish* that Crook had, “too many cartridges of copper.” He was accompanied by 300 of his tribe, but represented about 2,300 in the region.

* Spanish was the language most Indians used to communicate with white people in Arizona at this time. The Indians had been in contact with Spanish-speaking whites for a couple of centuries, while English-speaking Americans had only been in Arizona for a couple of decades.

Note: Most of the historical accounts of these events refer to the Indians involved as being Apaches because, at that time, all hostile Indians in central Arizona were called Apaches. Still, some Anglos knew the Yavapais were different and called them Mohave-Apaches, because their language was similar to that spoken by the Mohave tribe. The Yavapai were indeed Yuman speaking people, like their cousins the Mohave, Hualapai, Havasupai, Maricopa, Cocopah, and Yumas. The Yavapai were the easternmost tribe of Yuman speakers and the harsh climate and rugged topography of central Arizona dictated their culture. The westernmost Apache tribe, the Tonto Apaches, had also learned to survive in this harsh place and so the two groups found much In common, despite their different languages. Yavapais and Tonto Apaches cooperated, intermarried and shared the land, the general dividing line between the two being the Mazatzal Mountains. The Tontos were given their nickname by other Western Apaches, because the word “tonto” means fool in Spanish and the other Apache tribes in Arizona considered the Tontos fools for acting acting differently from other Apaches.


The Controversial Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops

The Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, located east of the Arizona state capitol, includes an impressive array of historical memorials. Among them are memorials about World War I, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, and multiple memorials about World War II. There’s also a conspicuous memorial to the Arizona Confederate troops that fought in the Civil War.

Arizona Confederate memorial
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops (Jeff Burgess)
The Civil War in Arizona

You might be surprised to learn that Arizona was involved in the Civil War. It began when all Union cavalry units stationed in Arizona were ordered east to fight after the war began in April, 1861. Confederate troops advancing from west Texas subsequently defeated Union forces remaining in southern New Mexico Territory at Mesilla on July 27, 1861. The Confederate commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Baylor, unilaterally proclaimed the existence of the Confederate Territory of Arizona, with Mesilla as its capital. It  was the largest town in Confederate Arizona, which included all of present-day southern New Mexico and Arizona. The boundaries were roughly based upon the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. (The lands acquired in the purchase were often called Arizona by the local white settlers.) Baylor also formed a Confederate cavalry unit by mustering in a local militia, called the Arizona Rangers, that had been organized to fight Apaches.

Baylor’s declaration was welcomed by  the white population, as a local committee of Southern sympathizers had already voted for secession in March. The Confederate Congress, however, didn’t officially create the Confederate Territory of Arizona until early 1862, after which it was officially proclaimed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis on February 14, 1862.

Confederate forces in southern New Mexico, now being led by Brigadier General Henry Sibley, began an invasion of northern New Mexico in February 1862. The Confederates hoped to capture all of New Mexico, and then Colorado, and eventually extend their territory all the way to Pacific Ocean ports in southern California, where there were many Confederate sympathizers. As part of this strategy, Company A of the Confederate Arizona Rangers, commanded by Captain Sherod Hunter, was ordered to occupy Tucson and did so on February 27th, 1862. Most Tucson residents were happy about it, because the Apaches had been on a rampage since the departure of the Union troops, and they hoped the Confederate soldiers would protect them.

The Union, however, wasn’t going to let Confederate ambitions in the Southwest go unchallenged. Confederate sympathizers in southern California were suppressed and a volunteer Union army, called the California Column, was raised in late 1861 to drive Confederate forces out of Arizona and New Mexico. The Californians, commanded by Colonel James Carleton, began their advance from Yuma up the Gila River in February, 1862. They were forced to travel in a series of small groups to get across the Sonoran Desert, and they followed the route of the Butterfield Overland Mail’s stagecoach service, stopping at established stage stations. After they reached the Pima villages along the Gila River south of Phoenix, they turned south to cross the open desert to reach Tucson, going through Picacho Pass, as does present day Interstate 10.

map of civil war in arizona

Captain Hunter’s small force did its best to harass the advance of the numerically superior California Column. They ambushed Union forces at Stanwix Station on March 29, 1862, resulting in one Union soldier being wounded. The Confederate patrol involved in that fight was led by 2nd Lieutenant John “Jack” Swilling, who later founded the city of Phoenix in 1867.

Stanwix Station
Stanwix Station, Arizona, circa 1876 (Sharlot Hall Museum)

Then on April 15, 1862, Union and Confederate patrols clashed at the Battle of Picacho Pass. The Union forces suffered 3 killed and 3 wounded, their dead including the commanding officer Lieutenant James Barrett of the 1st California Cavalry. The Confederates, commanded by Sergeant Henry Holmes, suffered 3 captured.

Captain Hunter’s main force abandoned Tucson on May 14, 1862, because he didn’t have the manpower needed to defend it against the oncoming California Column. Union cavalry took the town on May 20th, almost capturing Hunter’s rear guard. Many of the town’s citizens were glad to see the Union soldiers, and complained that, “Hunter’s command was composed of the most depraved cut-throats and gallows-birds”

On June 6th Carleton arrived in Tucson and received a four-cannon salute from his men. On June 8th he declared martial law and ordered his men to round up local Confederate sympathizers.  He subsequently sent three men, including one of his soldiers, on a mission to contact the Union forces in New Mexico to let them know he’d captured Tucson and was on his way to help them. The messengers were ambushed at Apache Pass on June 18th and two of the three, including the soldier, were killed.

On June 21st Carleton began to move his troops toward the retreating Confederates into southern New Mexico.  A group of cavalry leading the advance encountered hostile Apaches at Apache Pass in southeastern Arizona on June 24th and three soldiers were killed.

Then on July 15th a larger Union force was ambushed by Apaches led by Mangas Coloradas and Cochise at Apache Pass. Artillery was used to drive off the Apaches, but not before the 1st California Infantry suffered two killed and three wounded. The number of Apache losses is disputed. (Previously, on May 5, 1862, a Confederate foraging party roaming the countryside from Tucson had been ambushed at Dragoon Springs Station by Cochise’s Apaches. Three Confederate soldiers were killed.)

During the time Hunter’s force was in Arizona the Confederate invasion of New Mexico had been turned back by Union forces from Colorado at the Battle of Glorieta Pass on March 28, 1862. Confederate forces in New Mexico were in full retreat by the time Hunter’s troops arrived back there, and all Confederates were out of New Mexico by early July, 1862. The Arizona Rangers accompanied the other Confederate units in a long retreat to San Antonio, Texas. The Arizona troops continued to fight for the Confederacy in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas until the end of the war. The Union troops of the California Column occupied Arizona and New Mexico and turned their attention to fighting Indians.

Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch, Brooklyn, NY
Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch, Brooklyn, NY, dedicated “To The Defenders of the Union 1861-1865.” (Jeff Burgess)

I find the presence of the Confederate memorial at the Arizona state capitol offensive, mostly because a memorial dedicated to the Union soldiers that served in Arizona during the Civil War is absent from the plaza. There’s nothing commemorating the nine soldiers killed and the seven wounded who helped secure Arizona for the Union during that 1862 campaign. In fact, there’s no memorial on the plaza that mentions the sacrifices of any Union soldiers during the Civil War. It’s simply unacceptable and Arizonans need to do something about it.


During the Arizona Legislature’s 2016 session the local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) succeeded in getting state Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, to introduce SB 1036, which would have authorized the construction of a Union soldier memorial on the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza. The bill never got a hearing.

The SUVCW tried to find a sponsor to reintroduce the bill in the Republican-controlled legislature’s 2017 session, but couldn’t get a single Republican legislator in the state to respond to their requests. Instead, the Republicans in the legislature unanimously supported SB1179, which passed and  authorized the construction of a memorial to the black Buffalo Soldiers on the plaza.

During 2018 the Arizona Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) began a fund raising project to pay for repairs to the Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops. The Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA), which manages the plaza, had informed them that the monument needed to be maintained or it would be removed. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) had erected the monument in 1961, and as per A.R.S. 41-1363, they were legally obligated to maintain it. But the Arizona chapter of the UDC disbanded many years ago, so ADOA presumed the Arizona SCV group would want to take over the responsibility of its maintenance.

Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops - right side
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops – right side, January 2019 (Jeff Burgess)
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops - right side 2018
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops -left side, January 2019 (Jeff Burgess)
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops - front 2018
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops – front, January 2019 (Jeff Burgess)
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops - back 2018
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops – back, January 2019 (Jeff Burgess)