Things have been pretty pleasant in Pleasant Valley in the last hundred years or so, since its name was branded on frontier legend. But folks up here by the Mogollon Rim think it might be time to set the battle lines again.
Flashback to 1887. On February 2, a Mexican sheepherder working for one of the local Pleasant Valley frontier families, the Tewksburys, was discovered no longer tending his sheep, due to seventeen bullet holes scattered about his person. Thus commenced the notorious Pleasant Valley War.
The Tewksburys were cattle thieves, along with their partners the Grahams, stealing cattle and rebranding them. All was quiet and friendly until a Graham registered the partnership's illegal brand in the Graham name, excising the Tewksburys from reaping the beefy benefits. In retaliation, the Tewksburys brought a herd of rented sheep all the way from Flagstaff to eat up the grass and ruin the range for the cattle. Next thing you know, the Tewksbury sheepherder came up bullet-ridden and all hell broke loose, with ambushes, hangings and assassinations becoming a way of life in the no-longer-so-Pleasant Valley, with anywhere from 12 to 36 men getting killed. Finally, five years later, Ed Tewksbury shot the last living Graham on his way back from a grain delivery to Tempe, leaving himself the only surviving member of either clan and ending the Pleasant Valley War. Or so they thought.
Fast forward to Young today, a town of 700, accessible by 35 bumpy miles of dirt road through the Pleasant Valley section of the Tonto National Forest. Larry Graham is standing in his Future Farmers of America corn patch, trying to water, but he's having trouble. Nineteen-year-old Larry is used to having trouble since he has Down's syndrome; he sometimes has trouble sighting the middle of the water pipes and they get stuck in the ground. But this time the trouble isn't his fault, it's because there are just too many weeds; they're taller than the corn. And the weeds are there because the tractor on loan to the FFA was seized three months back, back when the corn field needed the tractor to turn over the soil. And the tractor was seized because a non-Future Farmer who borrowed the tractor allegedly used it to haul a trailer loaded up with firewood cut down illegally in the national forest.
All of which means war to Larry's mom Jo Ann Graham, as surely as when a Graham of a different era (although no relation) entered his name in the brand registry. Jo Ann Graham, who has the independent-minded crustiness native to many Young dwellers, sees her son and his tractor troubles as being the tip of an iceberg "of a national scope."
On September 19, four men were indicted for stealing 115 cords of wood from the Tonto National Forest. Three of these men were from Young, including Donny Hamilton, one of Young's two beloved deputies. The fourth man, Richard France, lives in Peoria and is believed to have employed the other three. It was France who borrowed the tractor from the FFA. The tractor that's now sitting idle in the forest service's yard as a piece of seized evidence.
Scamming wood from the national forest and bringing it down to sell in Phoenix is a long-standing practice, but Pleasant Valley district ranger Jim Soeth says never has it been as extensive as this year. Bob Wagenfehr, the timber management officer for Tonto, guesses that one in ten of the people in the forest collecting wood are doing it illegally. Since about 8,000 permits are issued annually in the Pleasant Valley-Payson area, this means 800 people are carting away hot wood; although since surveillance of the almost one million acres of forest land is difficult, to say the least, the forest service stresses that any estimates of tree stealing are just SWAG (that's forest service lingo for Scientific Wild-Ass Guesses).
The way a lot of wood thieves work is that they get a permit for their personal use, which has a ten-cord limit, and when they're stopped on the road just whip out the personal permit. Also, a lot of the wood thieves are locals and know all the forest rangers, so when they see the green ranger car going home for the day, they head in. Another frustrating problem for catching the wood thieves is that once they're off forest service land, they're off scot-free;rangers are lobbying for a law permitting them to stop anyone anywhere with a suspicious load of kindling.
Earlier this year, the forest service began an investigation into the rampant wood rustling, with two "Level Four" agents on the case. Level Four agents train at the Federal Law Enforcement Academy in Georgia, the same place where the FBI trains their agents. It may seem like overkill to put ranger G-men on the job, but that gives you an idea how seriously they intended to attack the problem.
However, Jo Ann Graham thinks the forest service has bungled the investigation. And she thinks it's absurd that the main thing they've been able to catch so far is her son's FFA tractor.
Graham is a realtor (although she started her career studying journalism because she wanted to be a foreign-war correspondent), so she spends a lot of time driving around the local countryside, and she says she's been run off the road twice by out-of-town trucks carrying large loads of wood. When she and other residents reported incidents such as these to the forest service, they felt they were blown off. Pleasant Valley ranger Soeth says that they followed through on all residents' complaints that were accurate and complete. "We can't stop somebody just because they have a white truck," he says. "There's a lot of stuff that goes on that we can't tell the public about. We followed through."
When the investigation concluded with Friday's indictments, Young was in an uproar, especially over the indictment of their beloved deputy Hamilton. "He wouldn't steal a wooden nickel," says one resident. Others think he was an unwitting accomplice, or think he was driven into it, trying to supplement his meager county sheriff salary enough to support his wife and three kids. But others, like Jo Ann Graham and Hamilton's wife Susie, think Hamilton and the others are being prosecuted as a diversionary tactic to cover up other problems in the forest service, big problems: the problems being raised by Angus McIntosh. No one has any concrete evidence, but as Susie Hamilton says, "It's come up at a nice, convenient time--what they've indicted my husband on is so wacky that it must be a smoke screen."
Angus McIntosh is a forest ranger from Young who invoked the Whistle-blower's Act last year to charge his employer with disrespecting ranchers' rights. According to McIntosh, the forest service has a policy of discouraging ranchers from claiming the water rights to which they're entitled, and then coming along behind and claiming the water rights for the forest service. Whenever both an individual rancher and the forest service apply for the same rights, the service has an agreement with the Water Resources department that it will automatically give the disputed rights to the forest service. McIntosh began researching and explaining to ranchers the ins and outs of water rights and grazing rights laws. When his boss asked him to put a cap on it, McIntosh blew the whistle.
Once disclosed, this heated up fast and quick, with the local paper prophesying: "The issues involved are larger than Angus, Jim Soeth, me or Pleasant Valley, and certainly larger than this one-horse newspaper. What we contend, my friends, is a war upon our God-given rights as citizens under the Constitution of the United States."
What you have to understand is, Young is ranching territory. Was in the days of the cattle-rustling Grahams and Tewksburys, still is today. A local paper is called the Roundup, and every year the Young girls dream of becoming the Stampede Queen.
The rancher and the rangers have never been buddies. As soon as the Pleasant Valley lands were designated national forest by Theodore Roosevelt back in 1905, it meant that control of the range was moved from the cattlemen to the federal foresters, and harmony has never reigned since.
"The forest service has a history of being uncooperative with ranchers," says Carolyn Dryer, editor of the Payson Roundup. "If a rancher expects to keep his allotment, he better do what they tell them." So strong is local animosity that the Young paper the Pleasant Valley News and Views pronounced the Game and Fish department, the EPA, the forest service, and the Board of Land Management as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse, galloping through Pleasant Valley shouting, "We are the government! . . . There are no rights but those which we allow! It's the law!"
So when former Marine Angus McIntosh began telling cattlemen that they might have more rights under law than the forest service was allowing, he became an instant hero. The results of McIntosh's allegations are yet to be seen as he enlists cattlemen and congressmen to his cause. However, McIntosh is feeling the immediate result of his whistle-blowing. He's been transferred to the Payson district, keeping him away from his wife and baby daughter five days out of seven. He thinks he'll probably get fired before all this is over. However, another result is that he's being written up in cattlemen's magazines all over the country and last Saturday was given an award by the National Federal Lands Conference, a rancher and landowner group, for "strong leadership in the battle to protect and enhance the constitutional rights to private property."
But all this does not help Larry get his tractor back. Gary Husk, the assistant U.S. Attorney General who is prosecuting the case, thinks the tractor may not be released until November, but admits it might never be released. Jo Ann Graham is bitter. "They found themselves a sucker," she says. It's too late to save the weed-strangled corn field anyway, she notes. But it's not too late to plant garlic. She passes on that information with the sound of battle in her voice. "What they've indicted my husband on is so wacky that it must be a smoke screen."
"What we contend, my friends, is a war upon our God-given rights as citizens under the Constitution of the United States.