Wednesday, July 23, 2008

To Clean a Dirt Tank and the Real Loss

By Rebecca Powell, 7-22-08

Part of an ongoing series about the Doña Ana County Wilderness Debate. For more on the debate and the proposals, see A Biased Observer of the Doña Ana County Wilderness Debate, For Some, Wilderness is Simple, Pearce Submits People’s Proposal to the House, and More Than a Yes or No to Wilderness.

Type in grazing on public lands in any search engine and opinions and diatribes pop up like dandelions. Those calling for the end of grazing cite environmental and economic factors. Environmental arguments against grazing have been countered by Allan Savory, though many still claim bovines decimate the land. Arguments on the basis of economics complain ranchers pay a pittance to graze, a fraction of what it would cost to lease the land from a private owner.

I am not a range specialist, a botanist, or a biologist. The environmental impact of grazing will be left for others to argue. However, I do know a little about time. People pay for me my time, time I spend thinking or writing. I try to live my life by advice I was given as a teenager: where I allocate my time reveals what I value. So when I heard it took Tom Mobley, a rancher and retired banker, five months to navigate the Bureau of Land Management’s permit process to clean a dirt tank, I blanched and dialed his number.

Mobley agreed to meet with me at his home, north of Las Cruces. I arrived 15 minutes late.

On a ranch, you fix what breaks. Fences are mended, levees repaired, tractors older than grandchildren are made to run. Fixing what is broken is half the job. Summer floods breached a dirt tank on Mobley’s grazing allotment in the Sierra de las Uvas. The Citizen’s Proposal recommends 11,068 acres in the Sierra de las Uvas be designated as wilderness. Mobley grazes 900 acres adjoining his ranch of the proposed wilderness, now a Wilderness Study Area. Rains in the Sierra De Las Uvas come fast and sudden, carving rivers down the slopes, rushing to the Rio Grande. The breached dirt tank stores a little of the West’s most precious resource for livestock and passing wildlife.

Ranchers grazing on BLM land typically hold permits for ten years. The permits place the upkeep of all existing improvements squarely on the shoulders of permittees, the ranchers. After monsoon season, Mobley set about the task of cleaning and fixing the dirt tank. Cleaning a dirt tank on BLM land involves a lot more than a skid steer loader. A whole lot of paper, people and time are involved in the fixing of a levee and the clearing of mesquite.

First, he filled out the appropriate paperwork. The dirt tank had washed out before and Mobley knew the drill. A BLM employee went with him to the site of the breach, inspected the site, took photographs, and assured him she would issue the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). An EIS is drafted every time repairs are needed; regardless of if the repairs have happened before. A new EIS was drafted and then sent to the interested parties. Twenty-four people, many of them tied to different conservation groups, received copies of the report and were given thirty days to comment. No one commented. Mobley was free to begin fixing the dirt tank, more or less.

Mobley wanted to use a skid steer loader to fix the breach. Shovels could have been used, if he had had the manpower, but the story of modern ranching includes the replacement of manual labor with machines. One man can do the work of twenty. BLM allowed the use of the skid steer loader, provided he park on visquine, a tarp. Mobley had hoped to cut back the mesquite lining the dam and apply an herbicide to stop their regrowth. BLM said he could cut the mesquite, but only with hand tools, and no herbicide could be used.

It took three days of actual work to fix the tank and five months of bureaucratic swimming. Mobley said none of the regulations necessarily hurt him, but he wonders at the inefficiency and the wasted time. What else could the BLM employee have accomplished in the time it took to draft a report and oversee the project?

Look at a map of New Mexico and you will see a checkerboard of ownership. Public and private land bump against one another in odd patterns with irregular borders. Ranching in arid New Mexico takes a lot of acres and a lot of New Mexico land (42%) is owned by the government, thus grazing on public land is not a rarity. Ranchers are allowed to graze in Wilderness Study Areas and wilderness designations and they do so for little monetary cost. Allowance does not mean free reign and the little monetary cost has hidden charges in the way of time and inconvenience. Grazing on federal lands comes with heavy oversight and a reservoir of rules. On one hand, I am pleased the BLM is overseeing what happens on our federal lands. On the other, twenty-four people need to know about repairing a broken levee? And parking on visquine is necessary?

People for Preservation of Our Western Heritage reports that at a City of Las Cruces meeting, Mr. Ed Roberson, Las Cruces BLM District Manager at the time, publicly stated “The ranchers are afraid of being ‘eaten’ one bite at a time.” So why does it matter if ranchers like Mobley have to wait five months to make repairs? If they decide the hassle of wilderness and wilderness area restrictions are too much and quit ranching? The answer: land. Ranchers who utilize federal lands own vast sections of land beside the areas we want to protect. The view sheds are open because ranching happens on those lands. If the ranchers quit ranching because of restrictions, they will sell their land. Chances are good it will not be sold to another rancher, but to a developer. So instead of seeing a few cows, we can peep in people’s windows and look at rooflines.

Mobley grazes in a Wilderness Study Area, an area not yet wilderness. He is part of People for Preservation of Our Western Heritage who proposes new designations (Rangeland Preservation Areas and Special Preservation Areas) for sections of the Sierra de Las Uvas, Organ, Doña Ana, Robledo and Potrillo Mountains. They propose the new designations, not because they are against wilderness, but because they are for ranching. They want to continue ranching and wilderness looks like a threat, a romantic threat, a popular threat. In the time I spent with Mobley, he talked of his love for the Valle Vidal, of the time he spent in the Gila. This is not a man who hates wilderness, who abhors conservation. He is a man who thinks there are multiple ways to be right and more than one way to get things done.

For two years as a newly wed, Mobley took care of his father-in-law’s ranch. As the sole employee and caretaker, he learned to do things he thought were impossible. When you are alone on a ranch, it does not matter if it takes four people to get a task accomplished—what matters is that it needs done, and it needs done now. Mobley learned to rely on himself, to look at a situation and not think “impossible,” but to think “how?” When talks between the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the ranchers failed, a failure Mobley attributes to both sides of the debate, Mobley despaired. What now? Would the ranchers be the isolated, silenced minority? His life training learned long ago on a remote ranch resurfaced, and a grandson’s school report provided another option.

So, yes, I would mourn the loss of a view shed if ranchers quit ranching, but more than that I would mourn the loss of people like Mobley, people who know there is more than one way to get a thing done.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Home, home on the holistic range
The Oregon cowboy must change his ways to keep his place on the high desert landscape

Editorial - The Oregonian

Last week's sage-scented verdict from a federal appeals court sent us two sharp reminders:

Judicial decisions are awfully blunt tools with which to craft environmental policy.

The most endangered species in Oregon may be the cowboy.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just ordered the federal Bureau of Land Management to take a look -- again -- at how it's managing more than 4 million acres in eastern Oregon.

The court's message was clear: The BLM better bear in mind the rising wilderness values of our state's shrub-steppe range.

The decision marked one more victory for high-desert environmentalists in their battle to make Uncle Sam a better steward of Oregon's dry side. It sent, too, a clear signal to Oregon cattlemen: Get smarter, or get ready to get off the public range.

Last week's decision came hard on the hoofs of a 2000 ruling in which the Supreme Court voted 9-0 to uphold much tighter regulation of grazing on public lands -- a decision that sent shivers through nearly 1,500 ranchers who hold grazing leases on 13 million acres of BLM land in Oregon.

A century ago, huge herds of cattle and vast flocks of sheep roamed central and eastern Oregon, where both plants and soil are acutely fragile. The result was extensive environmental degradation, especially in riparian zones, that took a huge toll on everything from sage grouse to salmon.

More recently, with sheep all but eliminated and cattle greatly reduced, much work is being done to better manage desert livestock. Some Oregon cattlemen are trying a practice they call "holistic range management." Heeding the mantra of an African rancher named Allan Savory, they insist that wandering herds actually enhance rather than degrade native grasslands.

Environmentalists bark back that the arid West, unlike Africa's great savanna, never was home to huge native herds. Thus, its ecosystem is much more brittle.

As the debate rages, public sentiment -- even among lovers of steak -- seems already to have shifted. Oregonians long were willing to let public lands here be managed for little more than livestock and mining. More recently, more and more people are advocating for those lands as a recreational resource, as habitat for fish and wildlife -- even as a reservoir of carbon sequestration. (We knew we'd eventually find a role for all those juniper flats.)

In the past 100 years, Oregon has seen a dramatic reduction in its number of cattle, and the cowboys who herd them. Unless Oregon cattlemen move quickly, and in concert, to carve out for themselves a more sustainable role in the sage, that decline will continue. Running fewer cattle on public range, moving them more often, securely fencing them out of streambeds, seems like a good place to start.

Willie Nelson once warned mamas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys. Pretty soon, Oregon will be warning its cowboys not to grow up to be baristas.

Friday, July 18, 2008

'Storn Over Rangeland' still rages 17 years later

RENO, Nev. - It took 17 years for the late rancher Wayne Hage to win a groundbreaking lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service in a long-running dispute over property rights, water rights and grazing on federal land.

A federal judge finally ruled last month that the government had engaged in an unconstitutional “taking” of Hage’s water rights and awarded more than $4 million to Hage’s estate. But his family and supporters - while relishing the victory - fear the fight is far from won.

“What happened to us in the 1980s and 1990s is now happening across the West, so it is going to be vitally important for Western ranchers to understand what they own and how to defend it, “said Ramona Morrison, one of Hage’s daughters and a member of the Nevada State Agriculture Board who was a freshman in high school when the dispute began.

“We could have a classic case here in some sense of laws working at cross purposes,” said Ed Monnig, U.S. Forest Service supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyable National Forest where Hage once grazed his cattle in central Nevada.

Federal Claims Court Judge Loren A. Smith, based in Washington D.C., ruled that government restrictions severely reducing water flows to the Hage family’s land “deprived them of the water they needed for irrigation, making the ranch unviable.”

Like judges before him, Smith said the cancellation of Hage’s grazing permit as a result of overgrazing and trespassing did not constitute a “taking” prohibited under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution because a grazing permit is “a license, not a contract or property interest,” he said.

But he concluded the government committed a taking when the Forest Service - apparently motivated by “hostility” toward Hage - made it impossible for him to maintain irrigation ditches.

“It doesn’t do you a lot of good to own that water if you really, effectively can’t use it,” said Lyman “Ladd” Bedford, a San Francisco-based lawyer who has argued the case since Hage first filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service in 1991.

Morrison said the federal agency continually harassed her father, who once was a leader of the Western movement for more local control of public land called the “Sagebrush Rebellion” and who wrote the 1989 book “Storm Over Rangelands: Private Rights in Federal Lands.”

“They had put my family through shear hell with various trespass notices, visits, demands and so forth culminating when they confiscated 100 head of our cattle,” Morrison said. She recalls the day federal agents rounded up the animals.

“They were fully armed. They pointed a gun at my brother when he threw a rock at a dog that belonged to the government. We were darn lucky we didn’t have a Ruby Ridge situation,” she said about a 1992 standoff with U.S. marshals that resulted in three deaths in a shootout at the Idaho home of Randy Weaver.

“This is really a vindication for what were considered radical ideas in 1989 when dad wrote his book,” she said, adding she wished her parents had lived to enjoy the victory.

Her mother, Jean Hage, died in 1996. Wayne Hage remarried ex-U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, before he died in June 2006 and she died four months later in a car accident.

Hage purchased the ranch north of Tonopah in 1978 and began feuding with the Forest Service almost immediately.

At issue, according to Smith’s ruling, is that the Forest Service prohibited the Hages from using motorized equipment to clear irrigation ditches on national forest land that brought water to the ranch.

“It cannot be seriously argued that the work normally done by caterpillars and back hoes could be accomplished with hand tools over thousands of acres. With hand tools the task would have taken years or decades and required hundreds of workers,” the judge wrote.

The ditches were regulated under the 1866 Ditch Act, which was enacted one year after the Pine Creek Ranch was established - two years after President Lincoln admitted Nevada as a state in 1864.

“The 1866 ditch laws and other laws were really part of that free enterprise period in American history where Congress was trying to encourage Western settlement and protect private property rights of Western settlers,” said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association based in Battle Ground, Wash.

“Nobody would go back to somebody who homesteaded a parcel of land in the 1870s and try to take that land away from them today. And as a result of this case I think all ranchers with grazing permits have solidified their private property rights on federal lands,” he said.

“He is a Western hero in my mind,” Cushman said of Hage.

Monnig said it’s more complicated than simply upholding a 142-year-old law because the Ditch Act must be balanced against other laws that have since been passed.

For example, he said, Congress enacted the 1964 Wilderness Act “recognizing we have this potential to basically modify and adapt every square inch on the face of the earth.”

“They said we want to set some land aside untrammeled by man as wilderness areas — some areas where earth will be untrammeled by man, where man is a visitor and does not remain,” Monnig said.

Justice Department lawyers say they haven’t decided whether to appeal, but Bedford expects they will.

John Echeverria, a lawyer at the Georgetown University Law Center’s Environmental Law and Policy Institute who had filed friend-of-the-court briefs backing the government’s position, expects the ruling will be overturned.

“Over the last decade there has been a spate of litigation over this basic issue and the litigation has pretty generally gone against the ranchers, in favor of the public,” Echeverria said.

“The plaintiffs and their allies have put out lot of materials saying it is a great victory for public land grazers,” he said. “But while this decision is troubling and wrong and will almost certainly be reversed on appeal, it is a relatively narrow decision.”

Though the judge said Hage “offered ample evidence that the Forest Service had engaged in harassment ... enough to suggest that the implementation of the hand tools requirement was based solely on hostility to plaintiffs,” Echeverria said Hage himself is to blame.

The Forest Service routinely requires ranchers to apply for a special use permit to use machinery on national forest land, he said.

“After Hage wrote his book, he wrote a letter to the Forest Service that said ‘I own this land. You can’t tell me what to do,”‘ he said.

Echeverria said the charge that Hage was limited to using hand tools is incorrect.

“It was a self-imposed restriction because Wayne Hage refused to seek a permit based on the theory that the Forest Service had no business managing his land. It was a self-inflicted wound.”

Morrison said she’s proud that her father has been vindicated, but she doesn’t expect to receive payment for damages anytime soon because of the possibility of appeals. Regardless, the judgment can never make up for the hardship her family endured for years, she said.

“No amount of money could ever pay for what we went through,” she said.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wilderness debate clarification

by Jerry Schickedanz

I have been following the "wilderness debate" of HR 6300, Doña Ana County Planned Growth, Open Space and Range Land Preservation Act of 2008 with interest and dismay as "concerned citizens and special interest groups" continue to use alarmist tactics to divert citizens from the basic intent of the proposed legislation. These groups proclaim a wholesale sell-off of BLM land and they ignore the basic intent of the proposed legislation of land protection and access in Doña Ana County. I will only address these two issues of the many distorted ones surrounding the concern for protected open space and development around Las Cruces.

The claim of an overnight fire sale of 60,000 acres of BLM land doesn't hold much water. There were some 65,000 acres identified for disposal in 1993 by BLM in their Mimbres Resource Management Plan. Since that time, less than 5,000 acres have been sold or exchanged. One of BLM's founding objectives was disposal of lands under their jurisdiction. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that BLM is identifying land for disposal and has done so for many years. Current maps of the land identified for disposal in 1993 are available in the BLM office.

Previously, lands that have been sold, traded or exchanged in Doña Ana County have been done so without a lot of public input. When an exchange, sale or trade with another agency or private entity is in negotiation, it is almost completed before the public gets a chance for input and is on a completion course. HR 6300 provides for a local advisory board made up of local representatives to advise the secretary of Interior annually on prioritizing land for disposal under the land use planning process and make recommendations to the BLM state director with respect to the disposal. It also provides for public input on the priorities for disposal of public land. I would think this would be preferable to the current negotiations that are not widely announced until they are a done deal.

There is also an outcry about the release of lands by HR 6300 that are currently under management by the BLM's Wilderness Study Area designation (WSA). Yes, HR 6300 would release these lands from WSA status, but the majority of these lands would come under protection of the proposed Rangeland Preservation Areas (RPA) or Special Preservation Areas (SPA). These designations would provide for federal withdrawal from 1) "all forms of entry, appropriation or disposal under the public land laws," 2) "location, entry and patent under the mining laws" and 3) "operation of the mineral leasing, mineral materials and geothermal leasing laws". The proposed bill would also allow the secretary to manage RPAs and SPAs to conserve, protect and improve the resources including grazing and wildlife habitat and to maintain and preserve the open space within these lands. Currently, these lands have little management input to improve them for wildlife, grazing or recreation. The proposed withdrawals are similar to what was passed by Congress in 2006 that provide adequate protection for the Valle Vidal area in northern New Mexico from housing development, mineral, and oil and gas development while still allowing access for those beautiful and valuable natural resources.

I submit that if concerned citizens with open minds would read closely what is in HR 6300, they would find that the bill will provide for an orderly and agreed upon disposal of federal land and adequate protection for lands that are important for open space in Doña Ana County. The bill will allow access for those who want to experience, use and recreate in these open spaces.

Jerry G. Schickedanz is dean emeritus for the College of Agriculture and Home Economics, New Mexico State University

Monday, July 14, 2008

Court: Ore. land plan should consider wilderness

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Federal appeals judges have told the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to take another look at its plans for about 4.5 million acres in Eastern Oregon — and to consider wilderness values when it does.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday the bureau's plans for the area are too narrow.

The judges say the bureau should include in its management plans areas where grass, sagebrush and juniper are reclaiming unused roads.

And it said the bureau should manage lands with an eye toward preserving their wilderness characteristics — even if they haven't been designated as wilderness areas.

As a result, the appeals court says, the agency must redo a management plan in the works since 1995. That plan, in turn, was a response to a law passed in 1976 that required federal agencies to make plans for the lands under their control.

The suit was brought in 2003 by the Oregon Natural Desert Association. It involves land in three counties, Malheur, Grant and Harney, where the bureau leases extensive tracts of grazing land to ranchers.

The environmental group said the bureau in 1980 compiled an inventory of lands in the area with potential to be declared formally as wilderness areas.

But by the late 1990s, the group said, another 1.3 million acres had become eligible for consideration for wilderness because what once were roads turned into little-used ways, small reservoirs had dried up and land infested by invasive species had been returned to native vegetation.

The bureau, the court said, insisted that its wilderness study ended in 1980 and didn't need to be reopened. A trial judge agreed.

But, the appeals court said, "Wilderness characteristics are not simply a checklist" to be used for a one-time inventory.

Instead, the court said, the bureau is obligated continuously to manage land with wilderness characteristics. It said that even if the Congress hadn't designated such land as wilderness, the bureau could protect it against damaging uses such as mining, grazing and off-road vehicle use.

A spokesman for the bureau, Michael Campbell, said it had not decided whether to appeal.

He said land in Eastern Oregon doesn't change quickly, but, "That said, we're always willing to look at new information."

Representatives of the Oregon Natural Desert Association did not immediately return phone calls.

Friday, July 11, 2008

BLM asks for public comment regarding grazing on Ore. monument

The Bureau of Land Management is asking for public comment regarding the future of cattle ranching in the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument.

A BLM assessment issued Thursday finds the current level of grazing does not adequately protect the wildlife and plants it was designed to guard when President Clinton designated it a national monument in 2000. However, whether open grazing will be completely eliminated from the monument, considered one of the most biologically diverse places in the world, is open to public comment for the next 30 days.

Monument Assistant Manager Howard Hunter says a decision will be made next year on whether cattle can stay. Meanwhile, a bill is pending in Congress that would pay ranchers with money raised by conservation groups to turn back their grazing leases.

"The cattle have been on that monument, or on that piece of land, for 150 years, and the cattle have been so detrimental to it that Clinton made it a national monument because of all the special plants and the community that has grown up there. And in my opinion, the cattle have probably enhanced that," says Rancher Bruce Buckmaster.

"The monument proclamation says retire the allotments. It's been clear for several years that the BLM doesn't intend to do that, it's been clear that the BLM has said, 'Oh we can change a little here, change a little there, and everything will be fine'. Well, that's illegal," says Dave Willis of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council.

To comment on the BLM's assessment of the effects of grazing visit this link.
Landowners wonder about future for bombing range

By Gabriel Monte: CNJ Staff Writer

MELROSE — A State Land Office official said Wednesday the future is uncertain for more than 20,000 acres of state land used for ranching and farming near the Melrose Bombing Range.

Larry Kehoe told farmers and ranchers who lease state lands they should continue their operations until the Air Force determines whether more land is needed to expand the range.

“Until they finish their due process we won’t know what they (Air Force officials) want,” Kehoe said. “Nothing’s going to change until we hear something from the Air Force.”

Rancher Chris Barnard said the meeting at Melrose School did little to shed light on his business' future. He said he leases about half the land he uses for ranching from the state.

“It’s hard to make a future if you don’t know what the future holds,” he said.

Kehoe said the meeting was designed to start a dialogue as the Air Force and the Department of Finance develop an action plan to purchase land now leased to ranchers.

The Air Force has a year to decide if it will accept the land offered by Gov. Bill Richardson, according to a memorandum of understanding that took effect in June.

Kehoe said the governor appropriated $5 million from the state Legislature to purchase between 17,000 and 20,300 acres of state trust land for Cannon Air Force Base.

Base officials said the Air Force has not agreed to accept any land until it determines whether it’s needed.

Lt. Col. Toby Corey, 27th Special Operations Support Squadron commander, said base officials are working on a comprehensive plan to determine how the bombing range will be used to train personnel for missions.

The plan should be completed by the fall, according to Capt. Justin Swick, 27th Special Operations Wing judge advocate chief of civil law.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

BLM finds grazing harmful to protected monument

Cattle grazing on the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument harms the flora and fauna the monument was created to protect, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has concluded.

In a long-awaited assessment expected to be released today, the agency found that cattle grazing on the monument, created by presidential proclamation in 2000 to protect its rich biodiversity, does not meet the proclamation's intent, said Howard Hunter, the monument's assistant manager.

"We have determined the grazing practices are not compatible with the proclamation, meaning we are not adequately protecting the tangible and intangible items in the monument," he said.

The assessment's release kicks off a 30-day public comment period.

The 52,947-acre monument in the BLM's Medford District was established to protect what scientists say is one of the most biologically diverse places in North America. For instance, the monument contains more than 100 species of butterflies.

However, the area has been used by local ranchers for more than a century for cattle grazing when the lower elevation pastures dry up each summer.

Located where the Cascade, Siskiyou and Klamath mountain ranges intersect, the monument is located a dozen miles east of Ashland. Soda Mountain is its geographic center.

The proclamation by President Bill Clinton directed the BLM to study the impacts of livestock on the "objects of biological interest in the monument with specific attention to sustaining the natural ecosystem dynamics." Should grazing be found incompatible with that goal, then the grazing allotments within the monument shall be retired, it stated.

Eleven ranchers currently hold grazing leases for 2,714 animal unit months on nine grazing allotments within the monument.

An AUM represents the amount of forage required to feed one mature 1,000-pound cow and her calf for one month.

Findings in the BLM's rangeland health assessment included increased noxious weeds and non-native perennial grass, indicating ecosystem health problems where moderate to severe livestock grazing occurred. It also found the rate of recovery in sensitive streams and wetlands where grazing occurred was slower than in areas not grazed.

"The minimum standard for being compatible was to meet the rangeland health standards — we are not at this time," Hunter concluded.

Beginning today, the BLM's grazing determination will be available at

Following the public comment period, an environmental assessment will be completed in about six months, followed by a decision sometime next winter, he said.

"The decision will be to modify or retire the allotments in the monument," Hunter said. "They will have to be changed. We are not meeting the intent of the proclamation or the BLM's rangeland health standards."

The BLM's determination that cattle grazing harms the monument mirrors a study by environmental groups released last year.

The agency's conclusion didn't surprise Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, which wants the cattle off the monument and federal wilderness designation for it. The proclamation language leaves the agency with no wiggle room if grazing is determined to be incompatible with the goals, he said.

"It's a national monument — not a national cow pasture," he said.

But rancher Bob Miller of Hornbrook, Calif., whose family has a historic grazing lease on the monument, believes the BLM has some discretion in its grazing decision.

"That isn't a killing factor yet," he said of the agency's conclusion regarding cattle grazing on the monument.

Meanwhile, ranchers and conservationists have been working together to create an arrangement that would allow conservationists to pay the ranchers to retire their grazing leases. The fate of the agreement depends on a Senate bill which would make it possible for conservation groups to pay ranchers to retire their leases. The buyout would include no funding from Uncle Sam.

"We want this bill to pass," Willis said. "All things considered, it's the best resolution to this situation."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Pearce's conservation bill: What's not to like?

By Jim Scarantino

The Doña Ana County Wilderness Coalition deserves congratulations for Rep. Steve Pearce’s proposed legislation to protect more than 300,000 acres of federal land in Doña Ana County. By kick-starting the debate on how to preserve the landscape surrounding a booming Las Cruces, the wilderness coalition succeeded in prompting a conservative Republican congressman to introduce the first major land conservation legislation for southern New Mexico in nearly 30 years. Moreover, his legislation originated among constituencies acting out of stereotype in joining the call to permanently protect the rugged beauty of the area.

I am the former chairman of the Coalition for New Mexico Wilderness. I was also a board member and executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. I helped lead the effort to win protection for the Ojito Wilderness in Sandoval County. That legislation passed in 2005. It was the first citizen-initiated wilderness legislation for New Mexico in almost two decades.

In a blog I kept a couple years ago, I expressed concern about the Doña Ana wilderness campaign led by the Wilderness Alliance. There’s no point in rehashing what I think went wrong from the campaign’s very first steps. What’s done is done, and wilderness activists simply have to deal with the political situation they face today.

Tom Cooper, co-chairman of People For Preserving Our Western Heritage, saw my blog entries and contacted me. Though Tom is regularly described in news reports as a rancher, he is more accurately considered a businessman. He has run a successful accounting business in Doña Ana County for decades. He owns two car dealerships. And he owns ranches, including one in Doña Ana County.

I had met Tom when working for the Wilderness Alliance in 2003 on issues related to Otero Mesa. Tom has a ranch on the western end of those grasslands. Our conversations back then could not be described as friendly. Respectful, yes. Friendly, no.

But because we had always treated each other honestly, Tom felt he could reach out to me. He told me of the frustrations and fear the ranching community was feeling, and how much the agricultural community in general distrusted the Wilderness Alliance because of the people who controlled its board of directors. That operative fact is a big problem in this controversy. I will return to that issue later.

Tom insisted his group wanted rural Doña Ana County kept the way it is, but could not live under the Wilderness Act because of the adverse impact on their operations, law enforcement, water resources and flood control.

The birth of the legislation

I gave him two pieces of free advice: One, don’t give up. You and the members of your group are well respected. You have deep roots in your community. Don’t let yourselves feel helpless. And, two, if you really mean what you say about wanting to protect Doña Ana County for future generations, don’t just be obstructionist. Be constructive. Propose and advocate for your own alternative solution.

That’s just what they did. Pearce’s proposed legislation, H.R. 6300, is the brainchild of Tom’s group.

To say the least, Tom’s group exceeded all expectations. The wilderness coalition, for its part, has enjoyed the services of several full-time employees and a large organizing and advertising budget. People For Preserving Our Western Heritage has relied solely on volunteers who have other full-time jobs. No outside foundations have been sending them five-figure donations to launch a media and lobbying campaign.

The group has assembled a coalition more than three times as large as what the wilderness professionals accomplished. Tom’s group has peeled away governments and organizations that initially supported wilderness. The chambers of commerce of Las Cruces and Hatch are behind them. Past presidents of New Mexico State University support their proposal, along with respected range-management professionals, the National Association of Retired Border Patrol Agents, the sheriff and posse of Doña Ana County, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers of America.

There is more support for the proposal drafted by this committed group of volunteers than New Mexico has seen for any other conservation initiative in a generation, with the possible exception of the professionally run campaign to protect Valle Vidal from energy development.

The proposal from People For Preserving Our Western Heritage has drawn so much support so easily because it has a vision that can work. Once you tune out the rhetoric and partisan bickering and actually read Pearce’s bill, as far as preserving Doña Ana County’s open spaces, there’s really not much to dislike. Nor are his land-disposal provisions as bad as opponents argue. I will address the specific merits of his legislation in my next column.

Scarantino has been recognized as one of the country’s best political columnists by the American Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. His work has been published in more than 50 newspapers. You can contact him at
People For Preservation of Our Western Heritage Catches Praise

By Rebecca Powell, 7-03-08

Part of an ongoing series about the Doña Ana County Wilderness Debate. For more on the debate and the proposals, see A Biased Observer of the Doña Ana County Wilderness Debate, For Some, Wilderness is Simple, Pearce Submits People’s Proposal to the House, and More Than a Yes or No to Wilderness.

Jim Scarantino, a respected journalist and former executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, praises the efforts of People for the Preservation of Our Western Heritage on Heath Haussamen’s NM Politics site. He highlights the group’s commitment and their home-grown roots.

The ranchers I know are an independent lot. They do not form groups, organize, or launch campaigns. They like open spaces, devoid of people. Informing the public on what it takes to ranch or its importance is not on an activity they relish or perform with any regularity. That a group of ranchers with ties to the local business community managed to overcome their natural inclinations to broadcast their message and form a large coalition of supporters may herald a new day in land conservation.

A commenter here said the people of Dona Ana County do not have the right to dictate what happens to the land surrounding their community. He said federal land belongs to us all. It is a romantic, compelling notion that has basis in law and fact. But, there is an aspect about land that goes beyond law, beyond notions.

The land you have walked, the land you have watched change over years and seasons belongs to you in an elemental way. People thousands of miles from Las Cruces may have a stake in these lands, but it is not an emotional stake. They have not mourned droughts, fires or floods. They have not watched the wildflowers bloom at the base of the Organs.

HR 6300 was not born in an office in Washington D.C. or Denver, Colorado. It was born from the minds and hearts of those who have walked the land and worked the land. They have an emotional and financial stake in this debate. Some will claim that makes them biased, purely self-interested, and I would reply, of course—we all are.

We live here, We play here. The Organs, Robledos and Dona Anas mark the boundaries of what we consider “here.” We all have a self-interest in their future. To assert that those for wilderness designation have less of a self-interest because they do not benefit financially from the lands is to say realtors, developers, business owners, and wilderness activists do not profit from the existence of the mountain ranges. It is to say that the surroundings of Las Cruces do not influence anyone’s decision to move here, that no one but the ranchers has a job predicated on their existence.

It is our self-interest that makes this a debate worth having.