THE wild horses of Eminence, Mo., might be elusive, but the affection for them among local residents is as sharp and unmistakable as the aroma from an Ozark barbecue.
Just watch Jim Smith gaze at Lil' Mo, the foundling wild foal that he has adopted. ``Look at her bank!'' he says with sparkling eyes and a wide grin as the grey colt leans into a turn.
``She's a spirited beauty,'' the horseman says in a spicey dialect.
Although Mr. Smith and his neighbors freely share their feelings about wild horses, their fondness somehow escaped the ken of federal officials. And therein lies a tale of rough-and-ready environmental politics worthy of the most colorful Ozark lore.
In October, People for the West! (PFW), a national group funded largely by the mineral industry and opposed to environmental land restrictions, helped local residents thwart a plan by the National Park Service to remove some 20 wild horses from the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
PFW jumped into the wild-horse wrangle as part of its campaign to expand its organization into Missouri and set up its first local chapters east of the Rocky Mountains. The incident is a textbook example of how PFW appeals to people's love for freedom and their hostility toward government.
By defending the wild horses around Eminence, PFW could not have lit on an issue dearer to the heritage and identity of people in the Ozarks. From the way Eminence residents talk, it seems the wild horses have as strong a claim to the softly rounded mountains and shaded hollows of the Ozarks as man does.
``It's a very sentimental thing with me in a lot of ways because the wild horses are part of our history and heritage,'' says Smith, a fourth-generation native of Eminence and operator of Cross Country Trail Rides. Smith's forefathers rode into the Ozarks on horses that became the ancestors for the wild herd in the area today.
PFW aroused these sensibilities as well as the feelings that swell its membership rolls elsewhere: hostility to officials and outlanders from the city and fear that making a living in rural America will grow more difficult.
``The Ozarks have kinda become a war zone because folks in the city seem to want to clamp down on what folks in the country do,'' says Tim Wigley, the director for field operations at PFW.
Environmentalists say PFW activists approach rural Americans like demagogues. ``They tell people that if the timber people and the mining people lose access to public lands, then the environmental whackos will come after you guys over hog farming, and chicken farming, and whatever else you are doing,'' says Roger Pryor, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
In 1990, federal officials hired a handler to round up the approximately 20 wild horses that graze on private property and park land.
Art Sullivan, park superintendent, says he aimed to meet a legal obligation and ensure the ecological integrity of the riverways by removing an alien species.
Defenders of the horses formed the Missouri Wild Horse League and won an injunction barring the roundup. After the park service secured a reversal of the injunction in federal appeals court, the league and PFW mustered several hundred sympathizers on Oct. 8 last year in a mounted protest ride on the park service headquarters in Van Buren, Mo. Mr. Sullivan indefinitely postponed the roundup. But the league and PFW plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.