- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

New Mexico ranchers are plenty mad over the U.S. Forest Service’s refusal to open a gate blocking their cattle from reaching water, but all sides say they are working hard to avoid an armed showdown reminiscent of Nevada’s Bundy ranch skirmish any time soon.

But that doesn’t mean a resolution will be easy or that the pressure on the local officials at the center of the clash is any less.

And still standing are the metal fences and locked gates along the banks of the Agua Chiquita, put up by the Forest Service to keep local cattle out. The federal government says the fences are merely replacing long-standing barbed-wire enclosures protecting a vital wetland habitat.

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Otero County officials say they’re exploring possible criminal and civil sanctions against federal agencies after failing to reach an agreement with federal stakeholders. The ranching community is also reaching out to Congress to step in on behalf of cattle owners.

“It’s time for a congressional inquiry into this and probably a committee hearing somewhere in the West to deal with this, because it’s not just here. It’s Utah. It’s Nevada. It’s what’s going on in Texas,” said Albuquerque attorney Blair Dunn, who’s representing Otero County in the matter.

The Otero County Commissioners released a statement late last week saying they were “frustrated and disappointed by the inability of the USFS to work cooperatively in any meaningful way” after federal officials refused to budge at a meeting called by the U.S. attorney.

“It was very frustrating for the sheriff and the county commissioners to go all that way, have that meeting in good faith, and nobody in that room from the federal government ever had any intention of compromising,” said Mr. Dunn.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico released a statement following Friday’s meeting confirming that the sides remain deadlocked.

“No resolution was reached during the meeting, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office continues to monitor the situation in Otero County primarily to ensure that public safety is preserved,” according to the statement.

Fourteen federal officials and law enforcement officers attended the meeting, said Mr. Dunn, but they insisted that they have no authority to remove the pipe fencing, which is tall enough to block cattle from reaching the watering hole but short enough to allow elk and deer to leap over.

Cal Joyner, Forest Service regional forester, said the fence was included as part of the region’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) planning process in 2004, which determined that 23 acres out of 29,000 needed to be cordoned off to protect the riparian area.

Mr. Joyner said the cattle have had access to water outside the fence but that four years of drought in southern New Mexico have dried up many water sources. He also said that the process was conducted in public and included input from the Medeiros family, which owns the cattle.

“Up until last summer, in the fourth year of a record drought, we have never had problems with water outside of that one fence,” said Mr. Joyner.

Opening the fence may sound like an easy fix, but Mr. Joyner said it would also require the Forest Service to reopen the NEPA planning process and change the rules governing the riparian area, which is being protected as habitat for at-risk species, such as the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.

“Once you make that kind of decision, to undo it you have to go through a similar process to say, ‘No, we’re choosing to again allocate these scarce resources back to livestock grazing,’” said Mr. Joyner. “That’s why we can’t just open the fence. There’s a process that’s gone through that’s public. We used public funds from the state of New Mexico to actually create the fence. It’s been a highly public process that’s gotten us to this place.”

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