Tuesday, April 13, 2004


Congressman asks investigation into Forest Service


U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce is asking for a federal investigation into U.S. Forest Service actions during a roundup of cattle grazing illegally on an allotment in the Gila National Forest.

The New Mexico Republican, in a letter dated March 31 to U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong, said there had been allegations of misconduct and harassment by the Forest Service and the private contractor rounding up the cattle belonging to rancher Kit Laney and his ex-wife, Sherry Farr.

He asked Fong to investigate an allegation that the contractor also rounded up 14 horses from private land that wranglers did not have permission to enter.

"This allegation is troubling enough in its own right, but the fact there have been numerous other complaints, including harassment of Laney relatives and other ranchers, questionable or illegal road closures and requirement of permits for people to enter private property adds to the perception that a concerted effort is being made to drive law-abiding New Mexicans from their homes and livelihoods," Pearce wrote.

The Forest Service announced the capture of the horses last month, saying they were on national forest land. Gila spokeswoman Andrea Martinez repeated Tuesday that the horses were found on forest property, and said they had been there for some time.

Pearce also requested a complete accounting of the cost of the roundup "and the necessity of every item charged to the roundup."

He suggested the inspector general talk not only with Forest Service personnel, but also with Catron County commissioners, area law enforcement personnel, ranchers and business owners.

Laney and Farr did not hold permits for the Diamond Bar allotment where the cattle were grazing.

The couple, who own nearby private land, contended they had grazing rights based on historical use of the land. However, courts rejected that argument numerous times since the mid-1990s. The most recent ruling came in December, when a federal judge ordered the cattle removed.

The Forest Service said in a news release Tuesday that it had rounded up and sold 414 head of cattle on the allotment and had rounded up and subsequently released the 14 horses found on the allotment several miles from private land.

Ten horses belonged to Laney and Farr and were released Tuesday to Farr; the other four - including one belonging to Catron County Sheriff Cliff Snyder - were released to their owners April 5, the agency said.

The cattle were sold for about $211,000, the Forest Service said. The agency has said that will help pay the cost of the roundup.

Forest officials said there were a few head of cattle still to be rounded up.

Gila Supervisor Marcia Andre said she has asked district rangers to meet with everyone who holds grazing permits on the forest within the next few weeks.

"Grazing is and will continue as a valid and appropriate use of national forest lands," Andre said. "It's important to me that we reaffirm our relationship with our permittees, ask for their advice on how we can mutually enhance our working relationships and communications, and deal effectively with issues at the local level."

Laney was arrested March 14 on accusations of charging his horse at Forest Service officers and trying to tear down a corral holding some of his cattle. He was released April 8, but ordered to stay clear of the Diamond Bar Ranch in the Gila.

Laney has been indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, assaulting and interfering with federal officers and employees and interfering with a court order.

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