New Mexico Weighs Legal Action in Federal Land Dispute

Thursday, 22 May 2014 12:18 PM

By Melanie Batley

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New Mexico ranchers are infuriated with the U.S. Forest Service for refusing to open a gate blocking their cattle from reaching water. But they are leaning toward taking a legal route to resolve issues to avoid an armed showdown similar to the clash at Cliven Bundy's ranch in Nevada last month.

According to The Washington Times, Otero Country officials say they're exploring possible criminal and civil sanctions against federal agencies, while the ranching community is putting pressure on Congress to speak up for the interests 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," Albuquerque attorney Blair Dunn, who's representing Otero County in the matter, told the Times.

The federal government says that metal fences and locked gates put up by the Forest Service were merely replacing longstanding barbed-wire enclosures and are needed to protect wetland habitat in accordance with planning regulations, according to the Times.

Ranchers, however, insist the area had been opened up for years every spring to allow cattle access to the creek, which is also used by elk, deer, and wild hogs. The new fencing is short enough to allow elk and deer to leap over, but too tall for cattle to get access, according to the Times.

Otero County Commissioners said in a statement last week after a meeting convened by the U.S. attorney that they were "frustrated and disappointed by the inability of the USFS to work cooperatively in any meaningful way," after federal officials refused to remove the pipe fencing that is blocking cattle from reaching the watering hole.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, told the Times that the issue is just another example of an ongoing struggle between the federal government and people who make their living off the land.

"This whole federal lands abuse — and there's no other term for it — has been something that has been building for years," Cowan said. "Basically, we feel like here in the West, and particularly in New Mexico, we're almost under siege with the federal government trying to drive us off the land."

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