The Fall 2009 issue Range magazine featured an article by Arlene Gaba entitled “Five Years with the Mule King”. It was about the time Mrs. Gaba spent living on a dusty ranch that belonged to her husband’s grandfather, John Prather. The story describes life on one of the last open ranges in the US and features the highlights of “Grandpa” Prather’s fight to keep his ranch from being confiscated by the Department of Defense. The army was attempting to make Otero Mesa part of the McGregor Range artillery training facility. The struggle between the military and the people they were supposed to be protecting inspired a novel by Edward Abbey named Fire on the Mountain, and a television movie of the same name that starred Buddy Epson.
I grew up in El Paso which is less the 60 miles from where the controversy took place. I followed the story in the El Paso newspapers during the mid nineteen sixties and after reading the article by Mrs. Gaba in 2009 I decided to locate her, and any other members of Prather’s family I could, so I could learn more about what happened after Prather died and the army knocked his house down with a bulldozer.
In the summer of 2010 I was fortunate enough to meet with Arlene and her son Mike Gaba at a party in Las Cruces. During the few hours we visited the Gabas and we became friends. They were excited to share their stories about the confrontation on the range and Prather’s eventual victory over the army brass. I also learned from Mike and Arlene that John Prather had nephew named “Irv” Porter (see “Larger Than Life” posted 06/30/2010) who was still living near Piñon, NM. Before the party was over I had attained Irv’s phone number and directions to his home.
During my next trip to New Mexico I located Porter’s home near Piñon and found him in poor health. None-the-less he was eager to have company and talk while he reclined on a sofa and breathed from an oxygen bottle.
Porter’s wife Lessie and daughter Toni joined in the conversation and once again I found myself among new friends. Before I headed back to my home in Arlington, TX, I had taken copious notes including directions to the remains of John Prather’s home place.
Finally, in April of 2012 I took all my notes and set out to locate the ruins of the Prather ranch and the place where the army allowed Prather’s family to bury him.
What I found turned to be an ironic sate of affairs; a classic example of how government controlled land is poorly managed and natural resources allowed to be wasted.
I turned east off US 54 and passed through a set of gates which were open, but fitted with all the hardware needed to lock them so the road could be closed on short notice. On, and to the sides of the gate, were “WARNING” signs to alert motorists to the fact they were entering McGregor Range, a US Army artillery test area. Along the, alternately paved and gravel road, there cattle guards that designated blocks of grazing land leased to individuals by the BLM for the purpose grazing livestock. The “washboard” surface of the road indicated stress applied by heavily loaded trucks.
When my truck’s odometer reached the mileage I had calculated to be the point where I should turn off the main road, I began to see a few trees about two miles two south. Then a well maintained dirt road appeared and I turned right heading for the trees and some storage buildings. Upon approaching the structures various pieces of road maintenance machinery, marked “Otero County Road Maintenance” came into view.
The dirt road ended at a complex of, what I estimated to be, around a hundred acres of stock pens, well constructed from steel pipe. A large ramp used for loading cattle on to trucks explained the washboard effect on the main road.
All this in the middle of the desert was quite a surprise, but then I saw a round water tank, about five feet tall and twenty five feet in diameter. An open spigot was pouring water which was overflowing out on to the desert sand and evaporating. I could have been any more surprised if I had seen a flying saucer land.
The Coalition for Otero Mesa says, “Preliminary findings suggest that there are at least 57 million acre feet of groundwater…” in the aquifer below Otero Mesa. Even so, the southwest is going through one of the worst droughts in its history and is seems criminal to allow water to be pumped out into the sand and wasted.
In light of the fact that this area is co-managed by two Federal and one state government agency, I couldn’t help wondering how many other crazy things were happening on the 1.2 million acre mesa.
The only effort being proposed to change the status of the range is being orchestrated by a handful of environmental groups including; New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and Kevin Bixby’s Southwest Environmental Center. These groups’, comprised chiefly of peacenik tree huggers and frustrated occupiers, want to prevent drilling exploration by turning “Grandpa” Prather’s prairie into national grasslands. Then the National Park Service can step in and create some camp grounds with plenty of water, so illegal immigrants and drug smugglers will have a comfortable stop over on their way from Juarez to Albuquerque.
It is amazing to consider the fact that just a few decades ago the US Army wrestled this resourceful area away from food producing ranchers and condemned it for the use of target practice. Now livestock is, again, thriving on the Otero Mesa. If the federal government and the environmentalists seize the land then the whole process starts over.