Saturday, February 10, 2018

In Rural New Mexico, Ranchers Wage Their Battle Through The Courts

Kirk Siegler

...Near the town of Cloudcroft, in a meadow of crusty, old snow, Stone hops out of a pickup and walks toward a small stream by the side of a dirt road. There's a fence around it to keep the cattle out. Federal biologists determined this area is critical habitat for the endangered New Mexico jumping mouse, and plants it relies on. "I understand endangered species, they need to be protected," Stone says. But he says environmentalists have pressured the government to close off areas like this using the Endangered Species Act as a tool to get cattle off the land. That claim is denied by most mainstream environmental groups. "They want to preserve a jumping mouse and they want to kill an American culture and heritage," Stone says. In arid New Mexico, the origin of pretty much any fight over the land is water, or what's left of it – it's feared that New Mexico is slipping back into drought. And the story around this fence is complicated. The land Stone stands on is public land. The ranchers don't own it. But they've long argued they do own the rights to the water flowing through it. Those rights were granted by the state before the U.S. Forest Service came into the picture. "It is a personal property right, that water that's flowing down that creek right there," Stone says. The cattle mostly couldn't get to the water. Things got tense. This was around the same time that government agents had squared off with militia supporters of Cliven Bundy in an unsuccessful attempt to round up the family's cows that were grazing without permits on federal land. But in southern New Mexico, the ranchers got together and decided to take a very different course: the courts. They believed the law was on their side, and alleged in federal court that the government violated constitutional rights by not compensating them after their property was condemned. At one point, Gary Stone recalls having to turn away supporters of the Bundys. Some had even offered to come in with bulldozers and tear the fences down. "We have not allowed that, because we don't want to go to guns," Stone says. Late last year, a federal judge sided with the ranchers. And the drama started to die down...
Here on the Lincoln National Forest, all 74 permit holders are in good standing. But count at least one of those, maybe more, as a reluctant holder. "We have never not signed our permit," says Spike Goss. "But we have always signed it under protest, at least for the last twenty years or so." Spike and his wife Kelly and their cattle company the Sacramento Grazing Association first brought that lawsuit over the fencing around the water sources back in 2004. One frigid evening, while checking on one of their largest corrals, the couple said they feel somewhat vindicated. But there could be appeals. "We just aren't going to resort to violence," Kelly Goss says. "As important as these issues are, and as much as we're going to keep fighting for them, we're going to fight through the courts." Like in much of the Southwest, vast tracts of range land here are owned by the federal government. Many ranchers depend heavily on their federal grazing allotments, which tend to be passed down through generations. "You do own something, you know," Kelly says. "We don't own the dirt, but we do own the water rights and the forage rights and you pay for that."

See the Goss court opinion here.

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