- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

ARTESIA, N.M. (AP) - Two New Mexico lawmakers are hoping conversations with ranchers will convince the U.S. Forest Service to rethink federal water restrictions.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce and state Rep. Jim Townsend, both Republicans, met with Forest Service representatives and ranchers in Cloudcroft this week about water access and its impact on the economy.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the outcome from it all,” Pearce said. “I think we will be able to reach an agreement where the ranchers will be given enough flexibility to do their work and stay in business, and also preserve the habitat.”

Both are supporting ranchers in an ongoing dispute over water restrictions on national forest lands. Townsend, who represents Artesia, recently joined several legislators from the area in drafting a letter directed at Gov. Susana Martinez. In it, the lawmakers call on Martinez and the state engineer to be more aggressive in protecting New Mexico’s water rights from “federal government overreach.” Townsend said water access is key to the agriculture industry, which contributes about $4 billion to New Mexico’s economy each year.

The issue reached a tipping point with recent closures of parts of Lincoln National Forest to protect the habitat of the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, Townsend told the Artesia Daily Press (http://bit.ly/29plodu ).

“If your water rights aren’t valid and they’re not worth anything, we have real problems. And if the federal government can just come in and take people’s water away without due process, we have real problems in New Mexico,” Townsend said.

The U.S. Forest Service has repeatedly defended its actions, saying it has responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act to ensure the survival of the rodent. Agency officials reiterated during the meeting Thursday that there had to be limits on livestock and wildlife traffic to allow the mouse species to recover. But they also agreed to seek out a compromise with ranchers.

In fact, Pearce said the Forest Service has already agreed to reposition the location of some fences in the coming days.

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Information from: Artesia Daily Press, http://www.artesianews.com

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