Land Lover

Natural resources attorney Tom Paterson wrangles cattle—and government agencies—to manage his ranch and environs

Published in 2016 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2016

Tom Paterson had just put 400 head of cattle on his land south of Luna, New Mexico, when Arizona’s largest-ever wildfire crossed the border and took a turn toward his ranch. He awoke to the smell of smoke, the sight of tanker trucks hosing water on the rooftops of his property, and the challenge of moving cattle to safety. 

The job required driving the cattle to safe pasture land, where Paterson gathered the herd together. “I put some hay on the back of my four-wheeler and they followed me,” he says. “Sort of like the Pied Piper.”

For Paterson, it was just part of the job. That is, the second job. The first one involves practicing energy and natural resources litigation at Houston’s Susman Godfrey. The 30-year partner intersperses calf-weaning and bull-cutting with courtroom arguments and client meetings.

Paterson is keenly aware of his surroundings, especially the environmental forces faced at his Spur Ranch in western New Mexico. He’s been recognized for his conservation efforts, and his measures to protect his operation during the massive 2011 wildfire may have aided other ranchers as well.

Born in Morenci, Arizona, Paterson moved as a boy to another mining-focused town, Silver City, New Mexico. He earned his law degree—and a Ph.D. in agricultural economics—from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, before starting at his current firm in 1985.

He represents plaintiffs and defendants, mostly in oil and gas law. His cases include antitrust, fraud, and contract disputes. His first big case: helping Unocal thwart billionaire T. Boone Pickens’ takeover attempt; it ended with a settlement and Pickens dropping his bid. Paterson also helped Houston’s First Presbyterian Church rebuff the national church’s efforts to claim interest in its Museum District property.

Paterson has a lifelong connection with the land. As a boy, he spent summers at his parents’ small ranch. “Nothing glamorous,” he says. “No electricity or running water, and we had an outhouse.” The life got into his blood, so in 1997, when land became available in Catron County, on New Mexico’s central western border, he went for it. 

Spur Ranch is prone to erosion, and Paterson’s biggest challenge was a tributary of the San Francisco River that, over time, had carved a gully through the property 25 feet deep and 125 feet wide. He worked with local, state and federal government agencies to work out a solution: two major dam projects to combat the erosion, with a series of retention structures that pull sediment from within the channel and deposit it further upstream, raising creek levels over time. 

“We’ll never completely reverse the erosion,” he says, “but we’re going to restore it to a level, where even in big floods, it will stay inside the channel.”

The $500,000 projects, funded by Paterson and a mix of federal, state, local and private entities, took five years to pull off—lightning speed, by some accounts. It was groundbreaking in more than the literal sense: Paterson received a Safe Harbor Agreement for Spur Ranch, a 2002 partnership with federal agencies that secured his ownership and protected animals whose existence his projects would promote. Authorities usually forbid use of land supporting protected species, but since they would be drawn by Paterson’s efforts, the pact made sure both parties benefited. 

“Normally, if you would go in and do a conservation project on a property that had the effect of making it a habitat for endangered species, they would tell you that you can’t use it anymore,” he says. “What kind of incentive is that?”

The dams, in addition to fighting erosion, transformed a barren gully to a meadow supporting insects, birds and other wildlife. He was named 2003 Conservation Rancher of the Year for Southwestern New Mexico by the San Francisco Soil and Water Conservation District. Howard Hutchinson, district chairman, has high praise: “He really deserved a much higher honor than a plaque and congratulations. We now have marshlands, and riparian species occupying the area.” 

He praises Paterson for wrangling a coalition of organizations and government agencies, including the conservation district, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s just a tribute to his negotiating skills and his tenacity,” he says.

Paterson and his family started raising cattle on the ranch in 2008, later adding a second property for grazing—partly in southern New Mexico and partly in Arizona. Calves are born in the fall, readied for spring sale, and moved between the properties seasonally. The operation now includes 500 head of cattle on 125,000 acres. 

The 2011 wildfire, Wallow Fire, was sparked on Memorial Day weekend and eventually scorched over 800 square miles, forcing the evacuation of nearly 6,000 people. In Houston, Paterson, wife Callie and daughters Lindsay and Caroline were set to go on vacation, and initial reports indicated the fire would miss the ranch, so they went ahead and packed their bags. “I hadn’t been to bed two minutes when I got word that the fire had turned and headed toward our 400 head,” Paterson says.

He dashed to the ranch. Forest Service officials offered Paterson a site for his cattle two hours away, but that location—in addition to the distance—posed a major wolf problem. Paterson argued to use a pasture a half-mile from the ranch, but he and other ranchers were stymied by federal regulations protecting threatened and endangered wildlife on that land. With intervention from Caren Cowan, executive director of the state’s Cattle Growers Association, the Forest Service relented. Paterson also briefed New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez on the situation, and “she made it be known that she expected the Forest Service to work with all the ranchers,” he says. 

Paterson and his crews forced the cattle toward the temporary pasture. It wasn’t pretty; some cows died of stress. “When you’ve been living with a fire for that long,” he says, “when you’ve seen the plumes and the cattle and see everything you’ve worked hard for about to go up in flames—it can be pretty emotional.” The fire would end up torching about 30,000 acres of Spur Ranch and 50 miles of fence. 

Looking back, it’s the agreement he forged with official entities that makes him proudest. The Spur Ranch Safe Harbor pact also set the stage for further environmental projects on Paterson’s land addressing environmental effects that stretched back generations—projects federal agencies couldn’t afford to take up on their own, such as thinning out ponderosa pinelands left unchecked by the logging industry’s decline. 

“That project took every play out of my playbook to make happen,” Paterson reflects. “The good thing about being a lawyer is that it teaches you to frame a problem, form an objective, recognize the constraints and push it through. It’s all about resolving problems.”

Says Hutchinson, “Not only did it benefit his operation and the surrounding environment, but it has become an example, to say this is what can be done. Hopefully we can expand this model all over the U.S., wherever erosion is occurring.” 

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