Hispanic ranchers fed up with Forest Service, "bail" on Obama

Feb 10, 2012

A community of Hispanic ranchers in northern New Mexico is seeking injunction against a U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) decision to substantially reduce grazing on two allotments, claiming that the service is mismanaging the land and denying ranchers their right to use resources on historic land grants that the community has depended on for generations.

“We feel that we have a legitimate place on the landscape,” said Ted Trujillo, a consulting attorney, who views the reduction of animal unit months (AUMs) as hostile to ranchers. “They really want to see it mostly recreational, or put into wilderness,” Trujillo said of the Forest Service.

Permittees are also claiming that the Forest Service has engaged in a continuing pattern of harassment and intimidation, as well as failing to preserve the region’s cultural heritage. The ranchers are joined in the suit by the Rio Arriba County Commission, which claims that the ongoing economic sustainability of ranching is in the interest of the county.

At issue in the case is the recent decision of El Rito District Ranger Dianna Trujillo to reduce grazing on the Alamosa and Jarita Mesa allotments by 18 percent as part of a long term forest management plan. The allotments comprise over 120,000 acres, and are located in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest. Less than optimal range health was sited as the reason for the reduction of AUMs.

Yet permittees complain that wild horses and elk on the allotments are causing heavy range impacts beyond their control, with elk and horse populations running well above acceptable numbers. According to the complaint filed by the ranchers’ attorneys in New Mexico Federal District Court, although a 2002 assessment indicates that wild horses should not exceed 70 head in the area, a recent count suggested that more than double that number is currently grazing the allotments year-round. Ranchers maintain that competition with the horses and elk

make meeting the Forest Service’s four-inch stubble height requirement next to impossible.

Ranchers also point out that despite excessive horse numbers on the allotment, no proposal for horse removal was included in any alternative in the recent management planning process.

“Why in the first place do they have horses if they can’t manage them?” demanded Carlos Salazar, president of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association.

“They’ve allowed elk populations to increase,” Salazar added. “They’re infringing on people’s private lands. The elk come in and play havoc on these fields.”

The ranchers filing suit are of Hispanic descent, many claiming to trace their roots back to early Spanish settlers who came to northern New Mexico in the 1600s. The ranchers argue that the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa allotments are part of historical land grants given to their ancestors by Spain and Mexico, granting rights to use the land for stock raising and timber. These rights, the ranchers claim, were preserved in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo when the land passed from Mexico to the U.S. following the Mexican-American War.

“We’ve been here hundreds of years …way before the Forest Service was created. [W]e depend on this forest for our livelihoods,” Salazar explains.

The allotments are also contained within the Vallecitos Sustained Yield Unit, which Congress created in 1948 to provide forage, timber and other products for the economic benefit of the surrounding community, which is largely dependent on the forest for its sustenance. But ranchers are frustrated, claiming that the Forest Service has strayed from its multiple-use mission, and is ignoring the unique rights that land grant descents have to use natural resources.

“A lot of these folks don’t have a ranching or agricultural background,” said Salazar of Forest Service personnel. “They come from Miami, New York. They have no clue how to manage. They just manage from the book. Book learning is okay, but you have to have a heck of a lot more.”

In addition to management, there is also the sticky question of discrimination. All of the permittees on the allotments are Hispanic, and many are poor, some running just a handful of cattle on the common allotments. Most of the ranchers are financially unable to hire an attorney to defend themselves, and count themselves lucky to be represented on a pro bono basis in this case.

According to Salazar, Ranger Trujillo has engaged in an ongoing pattern of threatening permittees and penalizing them when they spoke out against her to the governor, New Mexico congressional constituency, and agency superiors. In their complaint, the plaintiffs also allege that Trujillo attended a meeting of the Jarita Mesa Grazing Association where she told permittees that she had been working with “outside groups” who were interested in buying out their permits, and that she would facilitate “negotiations” with any interested parties.

“The Forest Service and these environmental organizations, they’re married to each other,” Salazar remarked.

In an interesting sidebar to the case, growing outrage among the Hispanic ranchers at current public lands policy is prompting this traditionally democratic-leaning community to reexamine its political moorings. On behalf of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association, Salazar emailed a letter to the Obama White House warning that Hispanics in the rural southwest were “bailing out” on the Obama administration and that current land policies were having a “very profound and negative economic impact” on low income ranchers.

Salazar indicated that he will be urging Hispanic ranchers to rethink traditional political habits.

“We’re encouraging them to bail out on the Obama administration,” Salazar said. “I will push that very hard. I am going to tell people: You want to be eventually removed off the land?

Keep voting for this Democrat.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent