Monday, March 15, 2004


Paragon sues livestock board over stock removal

The Paragon Foundation is suing the State of New Mexico Livestock Board

Paragon is a property- and Constitutional-rights advocate based in Alamogordo, with members in all 50 states. It also defends “issues concerning cattlemen, cattle growers and livestock,” according to the suit.

According to a March 7 Associated Press story, the board said it could not act on behalf of co-defendants Kit and Sherry Laney, Catron County residents who graze cattle on New Mexico’s Gila National Forest land and face possible impoundment of their herd if they don’t reduce their numbers and cut grazing.

The Laneys, AP reported, “have been battling the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service for years” and asked the Livestock Board for help. “But,” the AP story stated, “the board said it can’t stop the Laneys’ cattle from being removed from Forest Service allotments.”

The Livestock Board is under the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s auspices and, according to the suit, is “charged with administering laws related to the livestock industry in New Mexico.”

The suit claims board Executive Director Dan Manzanares violated the Open Meetings Act by entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with the USDA Forest Service. The MOU, signed by Manzanares, states the Forest Service and/or a contractor will impound branded livestock for transportation and sale. The MOU further dictates the “New Mexico Livestock Auction Facility will sell the livestock and transfer funds” to the Gila National Forest in Silver City.

Unbranded livestock will be “disposed of” under board regulations, the MOU states.

The March 7 AP story stated federal courts have ruled the Laneys must “reduce grazing and cut herds,” but that the “Laneys contend the roundup is illegal and the impoundment of the cattle potentially is a criminal offense.”

Paragon’s suit alleges the board violated the Open Meetings Act through the MOU with the Forest Service, and that “Manzanares’ actions were ... made without authority, and are, therefore, void” because the “MOU was approved by Manzanares on behalf of the Livestock Board.”

State Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Glenn denied an Open Meetings Act violation in a March 10 letter to Paragon’s lawyer, the Kienzle firm in Albuquerque. But the suit contends “Manzanares did not have statutory authority to approve the MOU on behalf of the Livestock Board,” and that the MOU had “not been ratified by a vote” of board members. Thus, the suit claims “Manzanares” actions ... are, therefore, void.”

The Kienzle firm, in a letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, states Paragon and the Laneys believe Glenn’s determination is inaccurate. If executive directors “had the authority to execute” such documents, the firm’s letter asserts, then “boards would be unnecessary.”

Regrettable Roundup

Millions of dollars in debt, his cattle in the process of being impounded by the U.S. Forest Service, rancher Kit Laney said Friday his fight to establish his grazing rights in the national forest is not yet over.
"We got two options. We fight, or we walk off with nothing," said the 43-year-old Laney, a battered black hat on his head as he stood near his home in Black Canyon on a chilly Friday afternoon with his wife, Sherry, 42. "Every day they are violating our constitutional rights. What choice have we got?"
Wranglers hired by the Forest Service started rounding up the Laneys' 300 to 400 head of cattle last Thursday. By Saturday afternoon, they had brought in 110 to a corral at the MeOwn Fire Base or moved them to Beaverhead, about 50 miles northwest of Truth or Consequences.
Because the roundup is controversial, the identities of the wranglers are being protected and security officers have been brought in as the livestock are removed from the Diamond Bar allotment.
As the roundup proceeds, the Laneys are planning to take their case to the courts once again. The couple claims they have grazing and water rights in the Gila National Forest based on historical use that predates the national forest's creation. Opponents say the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that same argument in 1999 in an earlier stage of this long-running fight that has made the Laneys darlings of the ranching community and conservative critics of the federal government.
The Laneys' cattle were removed from the Gila in that earlier battle after their grazing permit expired in January 1996. The Laneys refused the offer of a new, curtailed grazing permit in part because they said it would not allow them to run a viable ranching operation.
The Laneys, who own private land in the middle of a 146,000-acre allotment that straddles the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas, moved cattle back onto the allotment last spring without a permit. In December, a federal judge ruled the Laneys were in contempt of 1996 and 1997 court rulings requiring them to remove their cattle from the Diamond Bar allotment.
"Impounding a private individual's livestock is the last thing we want to do. We tried to be very considerate of the Laneys," Steve Libby, Gila National Forest range staff officer, said Friday at the MeOwn camp. "We provided every opportunity for them to pursue their claim in court.
"They are in contempt of court. We have no choice but to do what we are doing now, but it is nothing we want to do."
While the Laneys have done nothing to physically stop the impoundment or threatened violence, they have been vocal in making public warnings that they considered anyone who takes their cattle on behalf of the Forest Service to be guilty of stealing.
Last month, the Laneys sent a "notice and demand for protection" to Gov. Bill Richardson, Attorney General Patricia Madrid and members of the New Mexico Livestock Board. The Laneys warned they will hold the officials personally responsible in state court if they did not uphold their oaths of office and protect the ranchers from the allegedly illegal actions of the Forest Service.
"Due to these actions of the Court and the Federal Service, we fear for our safety and the safety of our neighbors because of what federal agents did at Ruby Ridge and Waco," the Laneys wrote. "All we want to do is stand up for our rights and make sure no violence occurs."
The couple has also taken other steps in this fight.
On Thursday, Kit Laney said he filed a complaint in Magistrate Court in Catron County alleging the Forest Service contractor undertaking the roundup had stolen his cattle.
On another front, the Alamogordo-based Paragon Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on preserving private property rights, filed suit Friday in state District Court seeking an injunction to prevent the New Mexico Livestock Board from permitting the Forest Service to auction off the Laneys' impounded cattle, as planned.
Otero County rancher Bob Jones, Paragon Foundation president, said Saturday his organization is arguing the Livestock Board's executive director entered into an illegal agreement with the Forest Service to sell the livestock.
A Forest Service spokeswoman acknowleges an agreement with the Livestock Board's executive director is in place.
Down the road, Kit Laney said he also plans to file suit in state court to establish his water rights in the Gila along with the attached grazing rights.
The roundup so far has gone peacefully, Forest Service officials said, though they are taking precautions that Sherry Laney described as "overkill."
The Forest Service has hired four wranglers to round up the cattle. For "security reasons," the Forest Service has declined to identify the outfit or even say where it is from.
For similar reasons, Forest Service officials have also declined to release the name of the livestock auction house where they plan to send the impounded cattle for sale. Jones said every livestock auction house in the state has refused to handle the sale of the Laney cattle.
In addition to restricting public access to the sprawling Diamond Bar allotment, the largest in the Gila National Forest, the Forest Service has brought in up to 16 law enforcement officers, some from Arizona, to provide round-the-clock security for the roundup.
"This is a very controversial activity. It always is," Libby said. "There's a certain amount of outrage from friends and supporters of Kit and Sherry Laney. So we just felt it was prudent to provide security."
The cost of the operation, including security, the equipment necessary for the roundup, and the contractor, will be added to the $63,639 in penalties and fees imposed on the Laneys last December when they were found in contempt of court for returning their cattle to the Diamond Bar.
"God only knows what that (charge) will be," said Sherry Laney, standing in a chill wind. "You've seen the circus up there."
Libby said the Laneys can reacquire their herd, which he tentatively valued at about $250,000, if the couple pays the value of the herd along with the roundup costs.
Kit Laney said he would not take that offer.
"They aren't going to steal my cows and then have me pay for them," Kit Laney said.

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