Cattlemen, new sheriff dig in heels, vow to renew fight against Forest Service
By Andrew Kasper
SUN Staff Writer
The federal Forest Service shot down earlier this month appeals from cattlemen on the Alamosa and Jarita Mesa grazing allotments that sought to preserve grazing rights the cattlemen say pre-date the Forest Service’s jurisdiction.
The Forest Service passed a decision to cut the number of cattle allowed to graze on the allotments by 18 percent over the next five years. The appeal, disputing the reductions proposed by El Rito District Head Ranger Diana Trujillo, was denied Jan. 13 by Carson National Forest Supervisor Kendall Clark. Clark upheld Trujillo’s decision to follow the recommendations of an “environmental assessment” of the area that recommended the “unsustainable” grazing numbers be reduced to lessen the ecological impacts on the land.
Neither Trujillo nor Clark returned calls for this article.
In the wake of the denial, Rio Arriba County ranchers are considering further appeals which could take them to the federal Forest Service’s regional supervisor in Albuquerque or even its national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
County Clerk Moises Morales, a member of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association who owns 84 cattle in Canjilon, was angered by the decision. Although Canjilon, an area adjacent to El Rito, is not affected by the proposed reductions, Morales has threatened marches and protests against what he considers unilateral action by the Forest Service.
“We must start a march,” Morales said. “These guys think they’re gods.”
Rancher Sebedeo Chacon, who said he stands to lose 26 cattle in the reductions, has demanded the resignation of Trujillo. He has a petition from last February with over 500 signatures supporting her resignation after Trujillo and local ranchers butted heads over her management of the District.
And some cattlemen want outright defiance of the federal rules by local law enforcement. Forest Service rangers need to be deputized by Sheriff Tommy Rodella to have law enforcement authority in Rio Arriba County, according to statute.
Carlos Salazar, president of the Association, suggested Rodella consider snubbing federal agents and simply not enforce the reductions — a proposition in which Rodella expressed tentative interest.
“We are researching it, and within the parameters of the law, we will take a stand,” Rodella said.
Rodella said that policy differs from that of the former sheriff. Unlike Joe Mascareñas, Rodella said he will not deputize federal agents. Instead Rodella said he wants his own deputies to carry out enforcement on federal lands.
“It doesn’t make sense to deputize federal agents with no oversight,” Rodella said.
At its Jan. 7 meeting the County Commission expressed support for strengthening the County’s role in dealing with the federal government. County Commissioner Felipe Martinez said he wants to pass an ordinance that at least “brings the County to the table” when dealing with the federal government. Martinez said the possible ordinance may resemble one used in Otero County, but specifics have not yet been hashed out.
Rodella said he will uphold any ordinance passed by the Commission, but said in the meantime the stockmen’s problems should be addressed by a Congressional delegation.
David Sanchez, an Association Board member who supported Rodella’s bid for sheriff last spring, agreed.
“We believe the only way we’re going to stop this is through Congressional hearings and presenting the issues to the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez and the Association have already sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) on Jan. 10 calling for a hearing and listing the sequence of perceived injustices done to the ranchers by the Forest Service. He said there were over 2,000 permittees with cattle on federal lands in New Mexico before the 1970s; now there are roughly 600.
Sanchez hopes a Congressional hearing will at least call attention to their grievances, but said the dispute never should have progressed this far. He claimed Trujillo’s most recent decision on the Alamosa and Jarita Mesa allotments was a personal vendetta against the cattleman for a petition seeking her removal last February.
Trujillo wrote in a document outlining her decision to impose the reductions that although the reductions would appear to have a negative effect on the permittees, the expected result is a more sustainable grazing environment that would be resilient to changing weather conditions and beneficial for coming generations.
Chacon, a fifth-generation cattleman on the Jarita Mesa, said his family has grazed cattle on the land since before the Forest Service, or even the state of New Mexico, existed.
Chacon and Sanchez also argued Trujillo is not a good fit for the region and its unique, old culture of ranchers.
“She’s a very good speaker,” Chacon said. “She has a nice voice and she’s smart, but she can’t even bridle a horse.”
Chacon argued the reductions couldn’t have come at a less opportune time in light of the recent economic downturn. After the announcement of the reductions, in search of compensation, he and other ranchers from the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa Livestock Associations sent a $925,000 bill to Clark, Trujillo, the County Commissioners, former governor Bill Richardson, and other politicians.
The bill is based on amounts the ranchers calculate the two communities will lose due to the loss of 185 total cattle. Most likely the cattle that are removed from the federal land will be sent to slaughter because they are too expensive to sustain on the ranchers’ own lands, Sanchez said.
Chacon said they have received no response to the bill, and he fears the worst is yet to come.
“(The reductions are) 18 percent now,” Chacon said. “In 10 years they’ll reduce another 20 percent. There’s no hope for this community.”