Confrontation as Conservation

A New Mexico environmentalist is pugnacious - and effective

Talking about freshwater sturgeon ignites Sam Hitt. He changes from being a calm, tenacious environmentalist to a kind of Carl Sagan gusher when he describes the vanished fish and its habitat.

"You can't believe what an artery of life the Rio Grande was at the turn of the century," Mr. Hitt says, sudden awe lifting his voice.

He leans across the table. "And the sturgeon, this eight-foot-long fish, used to swim up from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Espanola," he says. The town of Espanola, N.M., is about 1,500 miles from the gulf.

Hitt's enthusiasm and historical understanding of this changing landscape have helped create an environmental group, The Forest Guardians, that is arguably New Mexico's most pugnacious and effective. "We are established as people who can stop projects, and change policy," says Hitt, the group's president.

By demanding adherence to federal laws, The Forest Guardians halted all logging in 11 national forests for eight months, stopped livestock grazing along specified riparian areas, forced the Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico to set water quality standards for rivers, and leased grazing land from the government to keep livestock away from streams.

No friend of ranchers

Hitt's actions, which have angered most cattle ranchers in New Mexico, the logging industry, and many government agencies, are aimed at preventing further degradation of forests and rivers, as well as stopping extinction of local species.

"He's too radical," says Caren Cowan, director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. "His agenda is that he wants all the cattle gone, so there is no compromise, nowhere to go from there."

In fighting for the environment over the last 25 years, Hitt has been publicly vilified, physically threatened, and hung in effigy by those who disagree with his conclusions, and his environment-before-all-else position on issues.

He wants people to know how biologically rich the old Southwest used to be. His message: Realize how far we have declined, and let's stop the slide on all environmental fronts.

"We even had a fresh-water eel that came up all the way from the Gulf," he says. "Now basically because of overgrazing, levees, and pollution, the Rio Grande is dying." A handful of government and university reports confirm that view in varying degrees.

Like many other activists, Hitt began his efforts alone, at the kitchen table. Almost 30 years go, he spotted a small notice in a newspaper. The US Forest Service intended to spray an insecticide over thousands of acres to control spruce budworm. Hitt was appalled. "We started networking at the kitchen table," he says of his effort then while living near the Colorado border and working in a rural energy assistance program.

"It was lots of phone calls and people saying, 'You should talk to so-and-so,' " he says. "We were getting the science of the issue out to the public, showing the ineffectiveness of the spraying program."

A turning point came with a phone call he received from a regional Forest Service official in the middle of the night. "He told us we were right, that the program was crazy, and basically wrong. This was after two years of being told we were wrong."

Hitt and friends failed to get court injunctions several times over a six-year period. But they did learn the transforming power of media attention. A group of Girl Scout mothers, of their own volition, decided to join the protest because of potential birth defects attributed to the chemical used in spraying.

"At 4 in morning the Girl Scouts in their uniforms sat down in front of the spray planes before they went up," says Hitt. "TV cameras were there with lights. It was front page everywhere. Within a month the program was gone."

After that success, Hitt, now married with three children, formed an ecological pest management company. "I had a pretty good business going for a few years helping growers and other businesses avoid [the use of] chemicals."

But his next involvement, in a protest in the early 1990s to stop logging of old-growth timber in the Elk Mountain area, eventually led to the formation of The Forest Guardians and ended his business career.

It took former New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson to bring Hitt and the logging company together and hammer out a solution. The lumber company exchanged the old-growth timber at Elk Mountain for 20 million board feet of young timber in a different location.

"We got a tremendous amount of media coverage," says Hitt, who by then was part of a nucleus of confrontational activists, "and we basically we went on to stop logging in three areas." After that, organizational efforts sort of "snowballed." Large amounts of unsolicited funds arrived from people and foundations.

Today seven staff members, including Hitt, guide The Forest Guardians with a $413,000 budget. Membership is close to 2,500, with a 12-member board of directors lending support.

Next fight: water in the West

The Guardians' main legal focus now, says Hitt, is on suing the federal government and six states over water compacts that stretch back to the 1920s. "We want a new Magna Carta for water in the West that protects endangered species and ecosystems," he says.

The water compacts, created long before environmental laws, divided up the Colorado, Rio Grande, Pecos, and other rivers by allocating the amount of water each state has to deliver downstream to its neighbor.

"We are facing the consequences of those decisions," says Hitt, "because there is little water left for the rivers. Urban run off, agricultural run off, grazing damage, and toxic metals have befouled and changed the rivers."

To some environmentalists, Hitt dares to do what others may only think. "Sam doesn't back down," says David van Hulsteyn of People for Native Ecosystems in Santa Fe. "He has his facts. I've never known him to make a claim and then say later, I was wrong on that. He may be a little more confrontational than others, but I sometimes wish I were more confrontational."

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