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.
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.
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.
President Donald Trump’s pick to manage the U.S. Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is promoting a new “outcome-based” livestock management initiative on the public lands managed by the department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The agency has solicited its grazing permittees to submit their ranching operations for nomination to be among the 6 to 12 projects nationwide that will be part of this “demonstration program.” The stated purpose of the initiative is, “to show that livestock grazing on the public lands can operate under a more flexible framework than is commonly used in order to better reach agreed upon habitat or vegetation goals.” It might sound good, but, as always, the devil is in the details.
The BLM’s announcement of the initiative raised an immediate red flag because it included a statement from Zinke wherein he claimed that, “Farmers and ranchers know the wildlife and the land they work better than anyone.” Really? They know it better than the department’s professional wildlife biologists? And if ranchers know so much, then how come livestock grazing has done more damage to wildlife habitat on public lands than all other commodity uses combined? (Grazing is far more ubiquitous on public lands than mining, drilling, and tree cutting.)
The obvious message behind Zinke’s initiative is that the BLM’s current management of public lands grazing is unfair to ranchers. How? They don’t specifically say, other than to imply that it’s too rigid. The BLM explained that, “Grazing authorizations typically emphasize process and prescription. The new authorizations will instead emphasize ecological outcomes, allowing livestock operators more flexibility to make adjustments in response to changing conditions such as drought or wildland fire.” So it seems they believe that a proven prescription to achieve a desired ecological outcome is bad because it’s too strict, while more flexibility will magically provide an alternative to removing livestock from public land that has burned or is experiencing drought.
The BLM’s announcement also said that Zinke’s initiative will give local “stakeholders” a say in these demonstration projects, but it didn’t explain what that meant. Under existing federal law, the agency is required to employ the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public planning process when it implements a new livestock management plan for a grazing allotment. The NEPA process is important because it provides the general public with their only significant opportunity to provide input into livestock management on public lands. Zinke’s initiative is a demonstration project, so it’s unclear if NEPA applies, but it seems they are trying to invent a new public participation process, when a good one already exists.
I called the BLM’s national office on November 6 to ask them if the general public will have any opportunities to participate in the formulation of these new “flexible” grazing management plans. I was told that they don’t know, and that I should call my state BLM office to ask that question. So then I called the Arizona BLM office. They told me they don’t know either because they haven’t received any direction yet from the national office.
Perhaps my inability to get an answer about Zinke’s grazing initiative is simply because it’s a new program and the BLM hasn’t sorted out the details. But it’s a proposal from the Trump administration, and Donald Trump has already proven to be the most anti-environment president in modern history, and a threat to the perpetuation of the multiple use doctrine on our public lands. So I have good reason to fear that the general public’s opportunity to participate in this demonstration program will be restricted. It’s important that it’s not, because the BLM manages more than 21,000 public lands grazing allotments on millions of acres across the West and they plan to expand the use of this new process if they deem it to be “successful.”
On March 28, 2018, the BLM announced announced 11 demonstration projects in six states for the Trump administration’s outcome-based grazing authorizations initiative.