- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

A crowd gathered in southern New Mexico on Saturday to bring attention to disputes between rural residents and the federal government over access to water and public lands in New Mexico and across the West.

Otero County leaders said people’s rights are being trampled by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies. They have asked for a congressional hearing, and their supporters invited Gov. Susana Martinez and other elected leaders to the rally.

Saturday’s gathering in Alamogordo is the latest salvo in a battle over access to the Agua Chiquita, a small spring-fed stream on the Lincoln National Forest outside of Alamogordo. Forest Service officials in the region said the decision to fence off nearly two dozen acres of wetland habitat around the spring was made a decade ago to protect what is considered to be a unique area within the forest.

Now, with drought taking its toll, the spring has receded and what water is left is beyond reach of the cattle.

While Martinez did not attend Saturday’s rally, her spokesman said earlier this week that the governor is always concerned when decisions made at the federal level affect the state’s economy.

“The governor values the rights of Otero County residents and ranchers to speak out against recent actions taken by the federal government to fence certain lands,” spokesman Enrique Knell told The Associated Press. “The governor understands county residents’ vested interest in protecting the lands that sustain their livestock, families and property.”

Knell said Martinez expects all sides in the dispute to find common ground and a solution that doesn’t negatively affect the state’s rural economy.

So far, the parties have been unable to do that despite meeting earlier this month with the U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico. Ranchers said Forest Service officials are unwilling to compromise, and Forest Service officials said they are limited by the law and their responsibilities.

State Engineer Scott Verhines, New Mexico’s top water official, said he hopes the two sides will continue discussions.

“I encourage the Forest Service to engage the ranchers affected by the fences in the Agua Chiquita area to develop a similar solution that provides access to drinking water needed for livestock in this time of drought, just as the Forest Service has done in two recent disputes elsewhere in Lincoln National Forest,” Verhines said.

The Forest Service said it has a responsibility to protect the area, and it would not be able to open the gates to Agua Chiquita without extensive environmental review. The agency also said the impending listing of a rare mouse as an endangered species would be another consideration, one that’s also likely to affect watering holes in other forests in New Mexico and Arizona.

Ranchers and Otero County commissioners said the Forest Service doesn’t have a right to block access to the water. They said they believe the dispute will eventually end up in court.

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