Jose Varela Lopez recounts with pride that his family has been ranching in New Mexico since 1600 — a staggering 14 generations — but he worries that this generation may be the last.
He’s alarmed by what he describes as the increasingly hostile attitude of federal land managers toward ranchers and others in rural America who depend on the land for their living, a mindset that he says is “literally taking food out of the mouths of rural families and Americans as a whole.”
“I’m not here to tell you that every employee of these agencies is rogue, but I can tell you that the agencies are permeated with employees who wantonly violate the rights of rural citizens in this country and their small businesses,” said Mr. Lopez. “We’re dealing daily with individual and collective efforts to remove families like mine from the land. The worst part is that we have no recourse.”
Mr. Lopez was one of seven speakers who called on Congress last week to provide more oversight over the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies that he said are abusing their authority at the expense of rural residents.
The emotional testimony came at a House Natural Resources subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation hearing Thursday called, “Threats, Intimidation and Bullying by Federal Land Managing Agencies.”
The hearing was the second on what rural residents describe as a worrisome shift in the attitude of federal agents, who are increasingly the product of university programs that view grazing, logging and other natural resource-based industries with a jaundiced eye.
SEE ALSO: Fed’s next land fight: New Mexico ranchers angered over water fenced off to cattle
Those testifying Thursday said that the relationship between rural America and federal agencies has never been worse, accusing land managers of violating federal and state laws in order to make life more difficult for ranchers and others.
“This is about relationships. It’s not about disagreement over policy,” said Albuquerque attorney Blair Dunn, who represents Otero County, New Mexico “This is about federal employees, federal agencies, and federal bureaucrats not following the laws.”
Several speakers cited the standoff between the Forest Service and New Mexico ranchers in Otero County, where the agency built a pipe fence around the Agua Chiquita watering hole in the Lincoln National Forest in order to keep out cattle, even though a local ranching family owns the water rights.
Forest Service officials have pointed out that they left two 10-foot openings for the cattle to enter elsewhere, but Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican, countered, “Imagine trying to herd a large number of cattle through a 10-foot wide opening in a fence.”
“Bureaucrats and special interest groups treat that as a solution. I believe it’s a shell game,” said Mr. Pearce. “The fact that the agency would claim water rights don’t exist when they clearly do is an example of the federal government’s arrogance and an attempt to bully our local ranchers into submission.”
The tension in the rural West over federal overreach exploded in April during Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the BLM. During the episode, there were skirmishes between federal agents and Bundy supporters.
SEE ALSO: Westerners press for more control over their land
Rep. Raul Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, said that while there have been examples of “heavy-handedness” by armed federal agents, “there were also very graphic pictures of militia folks supporting Bundy on the highway pointing weapons at U.S. marshals.”
“That kind of a confrontation is something I think none of us want,” said Mr. Grijalva.
Mr. Grijalva also described the complaints as isolated incidents, arguing that most land managers oversee the federal government’s extensive property holdings in the West without incident.
“I think we can all agree that the vast majority act in a professional and courteous manner,” said Mr. Grijalva. “Unfortunately, like any company, organization or government, there will be instances where employees do not live up to that standard, and they must be held accountable.”
But Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber said the problem is bigger than just a few bad actors. When he was growing up in Nevada, federal managers were “friendly, they came to the ranch, we worked with them, but over the years that’s changed.”
“They’re predominantly from outside the area and do not develop connections with the locals,” said Mr. Gerber. “Many start out with a belligerent attitude, even a commanding presence. They’re especially offended if anyone opposes any federal government actions.”
Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock of Utah insisted that the depiction of rural Americans as anti-government renegades is incorrect.
“Some of you folks back here may think that we’re anti-government, and that’s just not the case,” said Mr. Pollock. “We’re reaching out today as well as we will back in Utah to try to forge relationships, to try to work through these issues.”