Catron County and the County Movement

The formation of the National Federal Lands Conference in 1989 kicked off another round of activity in the century-long effort by western states to wrest control of federal lands away from Washington, D.C.

The so-called "County Movement" launched by the National Federal Lands Conference first rose strongly to the surface in Catron County, New Mexico, which passed a resolution asserting county supremacy and control over federal lands. Hearkening back to violent grazing protests in the county in the 1890s, Catron's ordinance seeks to prohibit federal employees from managing national forest and other federal lands within the county. Beyond trying to usurp management authority of federal lands, Catron also passed a rule requiring heads of households to own a firearm to better protect their rights as citizens.

Though extreme and based upon imaginary legal premises, the county movement struck a chord in many rural counties across the West. By 1995, more than 100 counties--including some as far east as North Carolina and Michigan--had passed local-control resolutions similar to Catron County's.

The movement took hold with particular vigor in Nevada, which has approximately 90 percent of its lands under federal management. All but one of Nevada's 17 counties passed measures to assume control of federal lands, and the Nevada Association of Counties proposed that the State of Nevada held title to all public lands. Legal opinion did not side with the counties, however, as lawyers ranging from the State Attorney General to the U.S. Justice Department noted "infirmities" in the counties' position.

With no legal standing and continued support nationally to retain national forests and other lands under federal authority, counties were left with little traction for their claims.


"A Report on the County Movement, with Emphasis on Its Activities in New Mexico" Southwest Environmental Center, September 30, 1992.

Memo to Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas from Deputy Assistant General Counsel, Natural Resources Division, James B. Snow, March 9, 1994.

"Catron County, NM Leads a Nasty Revolt Over Eco-Protection," Wall Street Journal, January 3, 1995.