By Rene Romo / Journal South Reporter on Sat, Sep 17, 2011
LAS CRUCES - Federal officials are butting heads with Catron County over the county's unauthorized grading of parts of a 13-mile stretch of road that runs alongside, and sometimes across, the San Francisco River south of Reserve in the Gila National Forest.
The grading project, carried out by a bulldozer, appears to have crossed the river more than two dozen times within an area designated critical habitat for the loach minnow, which has been designated a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's a terrible place for a road," said Cyndi Tuell, Southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, who called the early August grading project the county's attempt to "thumb their noses at the federal government."
Catron County Commission Chairman Hugh McKeen could not be reached for comment. But in an Aug. 17 letter informing the Gila National Forest supervisor that the grading had occurred, McKeen and two other commissioners described the project as an effort to improve public access and the road's quality. County commissioners said three landowners asked for the road to be graded.
Catron County also asserted its jurisdiction over the road, which the county calls Historic Highway 12, through a grandfathered easement under
federal Revised Statute (RS) 2477, an 1866 public lands law aimed at encouraging Western development by granting rights of way over public land.
Some Western communities that have bristled at federal management of public lands have cited RS 2477 in claiming rights of way through national forests or wilderness.
"Maintenance of the original road has removed the in-stream travel of vehicles; they are limited to river crossings only," the County Commission's letter states. "Being aware of the ecology of the area, all material was pushed away from the live streambed. We have made every effort to retain the overall beauty of the road with its many trees and overhead shaded areas."
In a written response to Catron County's letter, Gila Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell disputed the county's claim of jurisdiction over the old road, which the county has not established in state District Court.
Private property owners have blocked the road at its northern and southern ends with locked gates, but grant Forest Service personnel access, Russell said.
Even if the road had been conveyed to Catron County, Russell said, the county failed to comply with federal laws and regulations under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said Friday that agency law enforcement officers are cooperating with the Forest Service to investigate the incident. The U.S. Attorney's Office has not yet become involved in the matter, a spokeswoman said.