Steve Henke spent years with the federal Bureau of Land Management in San Juan County refereeing land-use skirmishes among Indian tribes, ranchers, farmers, petroleum companies, hikers, archaeologists and environmentalists.
In his experience, public lands disputes come down to a clash between the 19th and 21st centuries. Can the many uses public lands are now required to support accommodate the historic, traditional farming, ranching, logging and mining uses the lands were intended to support when the federal government claimed them in the 1800s?
This “little rub” between Westerners and the federal government, once again made national news by the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, “is a carryover from Manifest Destiny, Western settlement, rugged individualism,” Henke said.
Now the head of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, Henke has zero sympathy for the Bundy family and friends who occupied the refuge to challenge federal authority over public lands...
But he is sympathetic to the stress ranchers feel as they watch the federal government navigate a decadeslong transition from helping them use the land to balancing their needs along with those of everyone else. “Ranching is more of a lifestyle than a livelihood,” Henke said. “It’s not what they do. It’s who they are.”
New Mexico State University economist Terry Crawford said ranch families have struggled against impossible odds for more than 100 years to preserve the land for future generations. “They live poor to die rich,” he said. They don’t see themselves as users and destroyers of land but as stewards and preservers not only of land but of history, culture and tradition.
Henke agreed, “There is value in people living in the landscape.”