Recent actions and a flurry of communications among those involved in the dispute over grazing leases in the Cibola National Forest could be a signal that some kind of agreement or compromise is in the works.
Eric Layer, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., on Tuesday said the congressman is working closely with ranchers in New Mexico and the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., and expects to make an important announcement in the near future, perhaps a week or two.
“We’re working on it from every possible angle,” Layer said.
Also on Tuesday, a rancher whose cattle were ordered removed from their Manzano Mountains grazing land by the Forest Service this past summer, met with the federal agency’s range management specialist who reinspected the grazing site.
The dispute can be attributed to a single source: the drought. However, a more nuanced consideration would include how its impact on federal grazing land is interpreted.
In June, Mountainair District Ranger Karen Lessard ordered 21 ranches to remove livestock from grazing land allotments in the Manzano Mountains, because of “severe drought conditions that for a third straight year continue to limit livestock forage and plant recovery.” The eviction notice took effect on July 30 and was to last at least a year “following the return of average or above average annual precipitation that produces seed in grasses and (other plants).”
The New Mexico Cattle Growers and individual ranchers called the action arbitrary, unnecessary and economically punitive. Last month they began circulating a resolution objecting to the “arbitrary non-scientific blanket removal order” to various governmental agencies, including the Torrance County Commission, which adopted it unanimously. The Lincoln County Commission has also approved the resolution, as has the East Torrance, Edgewood and Upper Hondo soil and water conservation districts. It is now under consideration by the board of the Claunch-Pinto Soil and Water Conservation District in Mountainair.
Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Doth agreed that the Forest Service’s “arbitrary and capricious action should be reviewed, using science and fact.” The blanket removal of all cattle from the grazing land significantly escalates the threat of a grass fire, he said.
“The rain situation near Mountainair is very similar to what we’ve been experiencing since June,” Doth said, “and our grass is going nuts.”
‘Disappointment and disagreement’
One rancher said the cattlemen began circulating the resolution only after a letter from the Cattle Growers Association calling for the Forest Service to rethink its position received “zero response.”
Earlier this month, however, Calvin Joyner, the agency’s Southwestern Regional Forester, did respond. In a letter to Rex Wilson, president of the ranchers’ association, Joyner said decisions like the eviction notice “are not taken lightly and should occur only after extensive consideration of alternative courses of action in full communication with affected permittees.” He said he had been assured “that the conditions and circumstances leading to (Lessard’s) decision to remove livestock were fully communicated to affected permittees over the past three years as drought evaluations were made and as forage conditions continued to progressively deteriorate.”
Previously, in August, Pearce had written to Joyner to express his “disappointment and disagreement with the recent order to remove all livestock from the Mountainair Ranger district. While we all want healthy rangelands, the management of these lands is much move involved than simply removing livestock without a quantitative monitoring program to back up these types of decisions.”
The evictions, Pearce said, were “drastic” and “will cause hardships on ranchers and their families, local businesses where they buy products and even the local school district.” He urged the Forest Service to get together with ranchers and experts at New Mexico State University “to seek an equitable solution.”
His goal, Pearce said, is “getting the livestock back on the forest as soon as possible.”
Looking for compromise
In his letter to the ranchers, Joyner said that in addition to the Mountainair district, the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands, which also fall under the jurisdiction of the Cibola National Forest, have removed all livestock because of the drought. Moreover, he said, other “National Forest units throughout New Mexico are generally stocked at an average of 60 (percent to) 70 percent of permitted numbers of livestock.”
This week, a rancher told the Telegraph that “our whole purpose is not to get into a big old fight. We just want the Forest Service to follow its own procedures.” A request to graze a far smaller herd of cattle on the federal mountain lands was met with a flat denial, he said, even though ditches on the allotment are “filled with water and there is more grass now than there has been for four years.”
Rand Perkins, a rancher whose cattle were evicted from an allotment that has been in his family since 1929, met with range management specialist Alan Warren on Tuesday. Together they inspected the 7,040-acre allotment. “Mr. Warren drove around and looked at the allotment and took pictures of key areas,” Perkins said. “He wouldn’t commit to any changes and said any decision is up to his boss.”
His “boss” is Karen Lessard, whose actions initiated the dispute last summer. On Wednesday, she said she was unavailable for comment because of a family emergency. An assistant would be able to comment on the issue, she said, but not until today, Thursday.
Perkins said he hadn’t spoken with Warren “since the end of July when they kicked us off.” This week’s inspection was “a lot better” than the most recent one prior to the eviction, he said.
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