The Obama administration’s crackdown on Western land use has sparked a furor over the Forest Service’s decision to fence off a creek used by thirsty cattle in drought-stricken Otero County, New Mexico.
The Otero County Commission is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss whether to order the sheriff to open the gates against the wishes of Forest Service officials, who have argued that the fence is needed to protect the Agua Chiquita riparian area and habitat for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.
Otero County Sheriff Benny House said he worries that the increasingly tense situation could erupt into a Nevada-style melee between ranchers and federal agents.
“What’s going to happen here is that we could end up with a Bundy situation,” said Sheriff House, referring to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. “Hopefully, we can resolve it without it getting out of hand.”
In another display of unrest in the West over federal land policy, about 50 people drove all-terrain vehicles Saturday into Recapture Canyon in southern Utah, an area managed by the Bureau of Land Management that is off limits to motorized vehicles. Hundreds more attended a protest at a nearby park.
Juan Palma, Bureau of Land Management Utah state director, said in a statement that the agency would “pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable.”
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He said the area is the site of ancient Indian archaeological artifacts and dwellings.
Although Bundy ranch comparisons are inevitable, one key distinction is that the Otero County ranchers, unlike Mr. Bundy, haven’t broken any laws. They own the rights to the water under New Mexico law, but the creek is within the federally owned forest.
“The Forest Service is coming in and saying, ‘We’re in charge of the water and the water is part of the forest,’” said Sheriff House. “It’s a control issue, and they’re trying to push the rancher out. They’re using every excuse in the book. One area is a riparian area. One area is critical habitat. One area might be for endangered species.”
At a May 5 board meeting, Forest Supervisor Travis Moseley told the commissioners that Agriculture Department counsel assured him that the Forest Service’s actions in the Lincoln National Forest were on “sound legal footing.”
District ranger James Duran said the Forest Service is taking steps to protect habitat for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, which was proposed for listing as an endangered species in June 2013 after a 251-species settlement in 2011 between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and WildEarth Guardians.
“Fish and Wildlife Services are preparing to list the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse,” Mr. Duran told the Alamogordo Daily News. “With the meadow mouse listing, what we’ve been told is they do plan to move forward in June of 2014 to list that as an endangered species. Once a species is listed as an endangered species it’s protected. Federally protected. We have to abide by that.”
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Two weeks ago, the Otero County Commission issued a cease-and-desist letter to the Forest Service, saying the fence “amounts to nothing short of criminal trespass by your personnel, potential animal cruelty and several other violations of state criminal or civil law.”
The agency replaced a barbed-wire fence with a 3-foot pipe fence that elk and deer, but not cattle, can jump over. Hundreds of elk, deer and feral hogs are still able to drink from the creek.
Mr. Moseley said the Forest Service created an opening in the fence for cattle, but Albuquerque lawyer Blair Dunn, who represents the county on the issue, said, “It’s really a needle in a haystack for the cows to figure out how to get into the 10-foot space.”
The Forest Service fence runs along the county line on the side of a mountain, which ranchers say creates a dangerous situation for cattle and motorists.
“So when the cows come down off the hill, they’re hitting the road and then they can’t get out of the way,” said Mr. Dunn. “People travel up and down that road, and there have been instances where cows get hit, people get property damage and injured by the fact that they’ve basically bottlenecked these cows onto a road.”
The Forest Service used to open the gates routinely to allow the cattle access to the creek, but critics say agency has become increasingly rigid in its dealings with the ranching community throughout the rural West.
“It’s not just the Forest Service,” said Mr. Dunn. “Since the beginning of the year on a lot of issues — Endangered Species Act issues, federal land-management issues, easements and use of federally controlled property — we’ve seen federal agencies become extremely defiant toward any sort of local input and extremely adverse to allowing people to continue to use things they’ve used in some instances for 100 years.”
He said there is speculation that John Podesta, who became White House senior counsel in December, initiated the tougher policies. A former head of the left-wing Center for American Progress, Mr. Podesta is known as a staunch environmentalist and hard-liner on climate change.
Local Forest Service employees have acknowledged that their orders are coming from Washington, Mr. Dunn said.
“The guys on the ground, the ones that we’re dealing with day to day, generally tend to be people that understand,” said Mr. Dunn. “Where we run into that rub is when the local person says, ‘If it were up to me, I’d be really happy to help you out, but D.C. is saying no, we have to do it this way, and I don’t have a choice.’ And they’re unable to cooperate at all now, because they’ve been told, ‘Don’t.’”
With summer fast approaching and no end to the drought in sight, ranchers worry that the cattle may not survive if they can’t find water.
Rancher Judyann Holcomb Medeiros, in testimony last week before the commission, said the Forest Service fence was “unfairly discriminatory against our water rights.”
“I love the land. It’s a wonderful place, and we take care of it and protect it, but it’s very detrimental to have our cattle fenced off water when we have a right to it,” Ms. Medeiros said.