Monday, January 23, 2012

Federal lawsuit targeting Forest Service alleges bias against Hispanic ranchers

A group of ranchers and one county said Monday that they are suing the U.S. Forest Service over its decision to limit grazing on historic land grant areas in northern New Mexico.

The group of Hispanic ranchers and Rio Arriba County officials contend the agency is trying to push them from land that has been ranched by their families for centuries. They say at stake is a piece of Hispanic culture and the economic viability of several northern New Mexico communities that depend on access to surrounding lands for everything from grazing to fire wood.

"Without the ability to access and utilize natural resources, our communities are drying up. We're not economically sustainable. We're losing our customs and our culture," said David Sanchez of the Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association.

The lawsuit centers on a 2010 decision by El Rito District Ranger Diana Trujillo to cut grazing by nearly one-fifth on the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa grazing allotments, which are part of an area recognized by the federal government for special treatment aimed at benefiting land grant heirs.

Forest Service spokesman Mark Chavez said the agency had not seen the lawsuit and that he would not be able to comment on the pending litigation.

The feud over the federal government's management of land grants established at the end of the Mexican-American War through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo has been decades in the making.

The ranchers' lawsuit chronicles a history in which they say the property rights of Hispanics have been ignored and an institutional bias has been allowed to continue despite the Forest Service's obligation to accommodate the heirs' dependency on the land.

They point to a 1972 Forest Service policy that emerged following the raid of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse in 1967 over unresolved land grant issues. The policy noted the relationship Hispanic residents of northern New Mexico had with the land and declared their culture a resource that must be recognized when setting agency objectives and policies.

After two years of study, the Forest Service released an environmental assessment of grazing alternatives on the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa allotments. One would have let ranchers maintain their existing herds.

Instead, Trujillo ordered that grazing be reduced by 18 percent. She argued that current grazing levels were unsustainable.

The Forest Service explained in a March 2011 letter to U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., that management practices by the ranchers had contributed to overuse of meadows in the two allotments and that fences were either poorly maintained or in disrepair.

"Without the ability to access and utilize natural resources, our communities are drying up. We're not economically sustainable. We're losing our customs and our culture," said David Sanchez of the Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association.

The agency also said the allotments had been operating below their permitted numbers of livestock for over a decade. Even with fewer cattle, the agency argued the allotments wouldn't be able to recover.

The ranchers maintain Trujillo's decision was retribution for them speaking out against the Forest Service's management practices and for requesting that she be transferred.

They have repeatedly voiced their concerns at public meetings and have written letters to New Mexico's congressional delegation about declining grazing opportunities and access to historic land grant areas.

The lawsuit accuses Trujillo of "engaging in a continuing and ongoing campaign of retaliation, misusing her position to harass and punish plaintiffs for their constitutionally protected conduct."

In addition to violating their First Amendment rights, the Forest Service has violated its own policies and federal environmental laws, the ranchers contended.

County officials said they are concerned about the loss of grazing fees, half of which are returned by the federal government to help fund local school districts and other public works.

County Commissioner Felipe Martinez also said ranchers help sustain the local economy by purchasing fuel, groceries and other equipment for their cattle operations.

"It all trickles down," he said. "For us, it's also about preserving the custom and culture, the language, the religion, everything that helps to identify us as who we are."

Attorney Ted Trujillo, who is representing the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit is the culmination of a long history of management disputes surrounding northern New Mexico's land grants.

"I think it's going to take a lot of education all the way around," he said, "but hopefully we can engage in some public policy discussions that would make a difference for the people of New Mexico."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

National Park Service has new land-grabbing tool

By: Ron Arnold

Big Green has an unlikely new sales pitch to convince Congress to fund ever-expanding land grabs by the National Park Service -- save wildlife migration. A map overlay showing all the U.S. wildlife migration paths would blot out nearly half the nation -- a very clever diagram for empire-building bureaucrats.

The obscure but well-heeled Wildlife Conservation Society (2010 assets $764 million) unveiled the idea last week in "Spectacular Migrations in the Western U.S.," a 45-page report on the purportedly urgent need for a widespread network of wildlife migration corridors to avert countless extinctions.

The WCS is a consortium of zoos ("urban wildlife parks") and global conservation programs that uses science, according to its mission statement, to "change attitudes towards nature." Its Spectacular Migrations report looks suspiciously like the expansion agenda of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the NPS's boss.

There's a good reason: WCS staff recently conducted a migration workshop for the NPS, which produced a new framework for conserving migrations in or near national parks.

The Hewlett Foundation has already funded demonstration corridors using the NPS framework in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico.

National parks can legally swallow up federal lands as well as private property. You can find national parks that contain wilderness, recreation areas, historic sites, scenic highways and many more, all within one big boundary.

"Connectivity corridors" such as migration paths are the perfect instrument for drawing lines between a number of protected areas, then drawing a single boundary line around the whole group -- Big Park.

Property owners and avid hunters are already taking to the email grapevine with alarms over the WCS report. The NPS management culture is notoriously hostile to both groups, which are ready to gird for battle.

The New York Times reported on Spectacular Migrations in lockstep with its debut, rhapsodizing over the dazzling beauty of a hummingbird "which weighs about as much as a penny, braves high winds and bad weather" to migrate from Canada to Mexico and back each year.

One of the report's authors, Keith Aune, a Montana-based WCS scientist, evoked the bison to make the point, "Long-distance migrations as a whole are rapidly disappearing," But there is no mention that his employer promotes programs that could cost property owners their land and hunters their access.

Aune said of spreading the migration gospel, "We have to have something the public can grasp. Spectacular migrations have great storytelling power." The story of dispossession and exclusion would be just as easy to grasp, but not as dreamy as a tiny bird that migrates 4,000 miles each year. His whole focus for the Times readership was how to frame the debate to be a more compelling sales pitch.

Although Spectacular Migrations covers only the West, the idea would be perfectly at home on the eastern seaboard. Its related concept -- land bundling -- is already at work in West Virginia.

A local green group is campaigning to create a High Allegheny National Park by bundling pieces of a national forest, two wilderness areas, several civil war sites, portions of a national scenic byway and a substantial amount of private property - Big Park. Migration corridors would easily fit in.

The High Allegheny idea gained traction when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WVa, asked the NPS to perform a reconnaissance survey and report back to him on its feasibility.

Instantly, the West Virginia Outdoors News took him to task for spearheading "a potential threat to thousands of acres of hunting land and hundreds of miles of fishing streams."

Manchin responded last week that as an avid hunter himself he would never support anything that might impair the hunting and fishing tradition in West Virginia.

Emphasizing the economic benefits of national park tourism, he promised he would block any High Allegheny park bill without "ironclad protections" for hunting and fishing.

Outdoorsmen were not impressed. They've seen too many places put off limits. And it's still possible that wildlife migration corridors will creep into the High Allegheny proposal.

The migrations report is here.