TOMBSTONE, Ariz. >> The rules were clear: no vehicles and no heavy machinery on the mountainside spot ravaged by fire and rain. Fixing the PVC pipe that carries water from a spring in the Coronado National Forest to this old frontier boomtown, the U.S. Forest Service decreed, would have to be done by hand.
The town was once the setting of legendary gunfights between ragged bands of outlaws and lawmen — sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another, but that’s Tombstone for you. Now, this tourism outpost of dusty streets and restored saloons is waging a modern-day fight against an enemy its people say is just as threatening as the bad guys of the past: the federal government.
A colorful posse of volunteers from right here, and also from other places near and far, departed in a caravan one recent morning to make the repairs and prove a point. There were men with long beards and handlebar mustaches, men in cowboy boots and roughed-up hiking shoes. There was a city commissioner from Elko, Nev.; a state legislator from Utah; a rancher from Truth or Consequences, N.M.; and a Republican congressional candidate from Arizona who is running to represent a district that is not Tombstone’s.
“Big government has underestimated this city,” said Mike Smith, president of the local Legion Riders, a motorcycle group, who took to the mountain in jeans and a leather vest. “They thought we might abandon the whole thing when they made it so difficult, but this is not the way Tombstone operates.”
Tombstone’s water system is as old as the city itself, and most of the parts that are functioning, which are few, were damaged last year by rocks and trees dragged downhill by runoff from the summer monsoons. The city set out to repair the system’s connections to three of the 25 springs to which it claims to have a right; connections to the other springs are inoperable or nonexistent.
Local officials were under the impression that a state of emergency declared because of a wildfire that came before the rains would make things easy. But after weighing the city’s predicament and the precarious state of the forest and its wildlife, Jim M. Upchurch, the forest supervisor at Coronado, issued a split decision: Bulldozers and tractors would be allowed in the lowest of the damaged areas to move truck-size boulders that had crashed onto the pipe, but they could not be used elsewhere.
“We think there are other options to protecting your water source without being so disruptive on the environment,” Upchurch said as he hiked Miller Canyon, where the repairs were under way.
Near the work site, Grizz Mace, a volunteer who works as a blacksmith at the OK Corral, the site of the infamous 1881 gunfight and its daily re-enactment, put it bluntly. “Back when this was the land of the free, you could go down into the forest, cut it down and burn it for firewood,” he said. “Now you’ve got to ask the government.”
The underlying point of contention is an Old West conundrum: Who has authority over water that flows from federal land?
Tombstone has roughly 1,500 residents, but up to 20,000 people could be walking its streets at any given moment, lured by its family-friendly Wild West feel, a sort of amusement park where characters carry guns (fake and otherwise). It gets its water from three wells, though two of them are not being used because arsenic has been found in their water, and the mountain springs.
For a “wooden town in the middle of the desert, in the middle of a drought,” access to water is a matter of survival, as Ken Ivory, the legislator from Utah, put it.
The city’s manager, George Barnes, said the springs that are now feeding the system do not supply enough water to safeguard the historic wooden structures that make up most of the homes, businesses and attractions here. He has asked fire departments in all surrounding towns to keep their tankers full and at the city’s disposal, just in case, and he has asked residents to give their plants just enough water to keep them alive.
“We did bite the bullet and filled the swimming pool because that’s about all the kids who live here have during the summer,” Barnes said.
The volunteer posse, known as the Tombstone Shovel Brigade, worked in teams, leaving from the base of Miller Canyon in half-hour intervals.
Dick Hengl, 74, from Green Valley, 94 miles west of here, lugged a cut saw on his shoulder, panting as he trudged through 2 miles of steep, rocky ground. The rancher from New Mexico, Mike Skidmore, 71, hauled a coupling to help seal a section of the pipe that had been leaking.
A packhorse carried bananas, water and nutrition bars, bought with donations mailed from all over — $5 and $10 mostly, but a $500 check came from Alabama. Supporters, alerted through social media and a website, also sent shovels, some of which still bore postage marks from their points of origin: Colville, Wash.; Camp Hill, Pa.; Tucson.
“If the government can do this to Tombstone, they can do it anyplace else in this country,” Skidmore said.
Kevin Rudd, project manager for the Tombstone pipeline, thanked “all Americans volunteering their time to do the right thing,” then issued marching orders. “Let’s move all the stuff from here,” he said, pointing at a gash in the earth filled by rocks, “and let’s use it to make a wall right along the pipe.”
The heavy rains will come, as they come every summer to the desert. The repairs, Rudd said, will bring temporary relief to Tombstone, “the town too tough to die.”
The ultimate goal is to get the connections to all 25 springs up and running, something that the Forest Service has opposed and that is the subject of litigation now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The Goldwater Institute, a libertarian research group in Phoenix, has taken on the case, arguing that keeping Tombstone from accessing the water is a violation of the 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states powers not explicitly granted to the federal government.
“We’re not asking to build a superhighway, or to cut a path where there has never been a path,” Nick Dranias, the institute’s director of policy development and constitutional government, said in an interview. “We just want to be left alone to repair and restore fully the water system that Tombstone is entitled to maintain.”