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Fleeing New Mexico’s small, rural towns

Rancher Jeff Byrd climbs a windmill on his Harding County ranch to repair a well he needs to water his cattle. Prolonged drought reduced his herd to 44 head this year, but rainfall in July provided him with enough grass to keep his remaining cattle. (roberto e. rosales/journal)
Rancher Jeff Byrd climbs a windmill on his Harding County ranch to repair a well he needs to water his cattle. Prolonged drought reduced his herd to 44 head this year, but rainfall in July provided him with enough grass to keep his remaining cattle. (roberto e. rosales/journal)
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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

ROY – About the first thing anyone mentions here is the new 24/7 gas pump that Richard Hazen opened this summer on N.M. 39, Roy’s main drag.

The new credit card-operated pump is big news, because Hazen operates the only gas station in Harding County, which covers 2,126 square miles and is nearly 40 percent larger than Rhode Island.

“The 24-hour gas pump is a big deal,” said Hazen, 56, a retired superintendant of Roy schools. “I don’t need the money. I did this just to help the community.”

The gas pump is a big deal, because the nearest gas stations are 35 miles west in Wagon Mound, 45 miles north in Springer or 68 miles southeast in Logan.

A retired educator’s willingness to pump gas and fix tires helps explain why this high plains town of 234 has managed to survive decades of population losses, recurring droughts and economic setbacks dating back to the Dust Bowl.

But like other rural counties across the nation, the ones in northeastern New Mexico have had little success persuading young people to stick around after high school or to return after college.

Audra Rivera, 17, was Roy High School’s only senior when school resumed on Aug. 14.

“I really like it a lot, because I get a lot of one-on-one with my teachers,” Rivera said. “But it would be kind of nice to have some more kids in our school, like in my grade.”

Rivera laughed. Juniors are responsible for planning Roy High School’s prom, which meant she had to organize the event by herself this year.

Then, there was the problem of who would accompany her to the prom. “I had to have a lowerclassman help me out with that,” she said.

After graduation, Rivera plans to study early childhood development or psychology, possibly at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, but it’s unlikely that she will return to Roy after college.

The search for jobs prompted Rivera’s older brother to move to Santa Fe and her older sister to Pueblo, Colo. “Roy is a very good town to live in,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody. But to live here, it’s not that good because there are no jobs around here.”

Roy accounts for about a third of Harding County’s 695 residents, making it the most sparsely populated of New Mexico’s 33 counties.

Harding has lost population each decade since 1930. It lost 14 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010 – a rate exceeded only by Hidalgo County in New Mexico’s Bootheel, which lost 17.5 percent during the decade.

“A really big factor for a lot of these towns is a lack of young people,” said Terry Brunner, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development director for New Mexico. Many High Plains communities have good, small schools, but few jobs for graduates, he said.

‘Broken’ economy

Roy sprang to life in the first decade of the 20th century after the El Paso and Southern Railroad, later the Southern Pacific, drove a spur from Tucumcari to a Santa Fe railway siding north of Springer to transport coal from the Raton area.

The railroad opened the land to ranchers and farmers, swelling Harding County’s population to a peak of 4,421 in 1930, just before the Dust Bowl walloped Harding and other plains counties in eastern New Mexico.

The Southern Pacific halted train traffic through Harding after coal mining ended in Colfax County in the 1950s.

High plains counties, from De Baca north to Union and Colfax in New Mexico’s northeastern corner, once relied on industries such as ranching, farming, mining and railroads that have either died or are struggling, Brunner said.

“That economic system is just broken down,” Brunner said. “The question is, where do they go next?”

Strong family ties and a love of rural and ranching life inspires some to stay put despite hardships and a lack of job opportunities.

“I grew up with a bunch of kids around here that are gone now,” Harding County rancher Jeff Byrd said. “I honestly didn’t think that I would be the one who would come back.”

Byrd had a choice. The New Mexico State University graduate worked as an engineer at the Navajo Refining Co. in Artesia for 13 years. He returned to ranching after his father died in 2001, leaving his mother to run the family ranch by herself.

Drought

Repairing windmills ranks is one of Byrd’s least favorite jobs. And because Byrd has six windmills on his 4,500-acre ranch, he spends a lot of time at it. His most productive wind pump failed recently and repairing it meant pulling 275 feet of pipe out of the well casing.

“In the last year, some people’s wells have gone dry,” he said. “We’re fortunate, I guess.”

The wells provide water for his cattle stock ponds, but he needs rain to green up his pastures, the chief source of fodder for his cattle.

The multiyear drought has trimmed the size of Byrd’s herd to just 44 cattle, down from more than 100 head he has raised in better years. “Water is the limiting factor for how many cattle you can run,” he said.

Byrd’s predicament is common to ranchers across New Mexico, where the number of cattle has declined by more than half in recent years to an estimated 500,000 head, down from about 1.2 million in 2008.

Despite the hardships, ranching remains a mainstay of the high plains economy. Ranching income accounted for 40 percent of Harding County’s total personal income of $33.8 million in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

By early July, drought had reduced Byrd’s ranch to an unbroken expanse of brown, dead grass. He planned to sell off all his remaining cattle, but several good rains later in the month returned green shoots to the land, allowing him to keep his small herd.

“You’ve got to live through it. Survive it,” he said. “You sell off the weak cows so you end up with a better herd. That’s the theory, anyway.”

Fortunately, Byrd has family support. His wife is a teacher and engineering consultant, and her income helps sustain the couple and their two young sons, ages 7 and 8.

“We couldn’t survive on this alone,” Byrd said of ranching. “Especially now, it just barely pays for itself.”

By now, Byrd had spent nearly an hour squatting in a hole, trying to unscrew a stubborn wellhead with a huge crescent wrench. In so doing, Byrd broke a length of PVC pipe, which would cost him additional time and repairs.

“This job usually takes three hours, and I made it longer by breaking that pipe,” he said.

Ranching is hard work, and this year it won’t pay much. So what keeps Byrd in the business?

“It’s a lifestyle choice,” he said. “It has become a cliché to say that, but it’s true. People that choose to do this are here because they enjoy it.”

New life

Local business owners point to small victories. Before Hazen began operating the Roy Fuel Stop on June 1, drivers could buy gas here for only a few hours a day Monday through Friday while an attendant was on duty.

“People had to beg for gas, basically, if they weren’t open,” Roy resident Jennifer Tompkins said. “It really hurt us.”

The hit-and-miss gas supply hurt Roy, because many motorists, particularly Texas tourists, use N.M. 39 as a shortcut to Angel Fire, Red River and other resort towns to the north.

“A lot of the tourists found out you couldn’t get gas in Roy, and people were getting stranded,” said Sandy Ray, owner of Ma Sally’s Mercantile, an antique store on N.M. 39. Word of the gasoline drought caused a slump in business as tourists shunned the route, she said. “We all felt it. Everybody did.”

Business picked up significantly after the 24-hour gas pump opened, said Ray, who opened her store in July 2011, selling items such as old tools, antique wheels, doors and burlap sacks for 85 consignees throughout Harding County.

“It’s been much more successful than I anticipated,” Ray said of her business, housed in a renovated century-old grocery store. In addition to walk-in business, Ray sells antiques on eBay, mostly during the winter months when the “caravan of Texans” tapers off.

She and other business owners revived the Roy Chamber of Commerce in October, and three new businesses opened here over the summer, including Hazen’s gas station, a used clothing and furniture store, and a fitness center.

The revived Chamber of Commerce “was like the fire that got everyone moving and shaking,” she said.

Family ties and the lure of small-town life prompt some to return to the area.

Chandra Gonzales, 26, was one of 12 in her graduating class in 2005. She graduated from New Mexico State University and married a man from Wagon Mound.

But her experience as a student teacher in Las Vegas, where she taught up to 24 elementary students in a class, convinced Gonzales and her husband that they should return to Roy to enroll their daughter in kindergarten.

Their 6-year-old daughter will be among eight children entering first grade this year at the Roy Community School.

“Roy is the place where I wanted her to grow up and go to school,” Gonzales said. “The people who are teaching my daughter, we have been friends for years. I feel there’s more of a family sense in the school.”

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