New Mexico ranchers push to graze preserve

 

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, "Corruption and tragic history paralyze range reform on the Navajo reservation."

Northern New Mexico is known for more than fiery red chilis and smoldering mountain sunsets; it's also notorious for skirmishes between its mostly Hispanic ranching community and the U.S. Forest Service.

In June, after a tour of the Santa Fe National Forest, David Stewart, regional director of rangeland management, sent employees a scathing e-mail, reprimanding them for the "most horrible example of grazing administration I've ever experienced."

But when Acting Forest Supervisor Gilbert Zepeda told the 275 permit holders to remove their cattle from 40 allotments in the forest, his announcement was met with resounding protest. "The conquering has never stopped for our community," says Moises Morales Jr., a rancher and Rio Arriba County commissioner. "They took away our winter pasture, our horse permits, they killed our wild horses. Now, we just have crumbs left."

In mid-July, ranchers protested outside agency headquarters in Santa Fe, demanding that officials allow them to keep their cattle on the forest. As a result, the Forest Service put the evictions on hold until the allotments could be evaluated by a group of range specialists and ecologists from New Mexico State University.

Now, ranchers are demanding that officials open the Valles Caldera, an 89,000-acre national preserve in the Jemez Mountains overseen by a private trust (HCN, 12/3/01).

Legally, grazing must be allowed in the preserve, but cows have been kept out until environmental studies are completed. In early August, under pressure from ranchers and county politicians, the Valles Caldera Board fast-tracked its decision. Now, if all goes according to plan, up to 2,000 cattle will be grazing in the preserve by mid-August.

"We're trying to consider the drought and the difficult conditions the ranchers of the region are facing," says William deBuys, chairman of the Valles Caldera Board. "But we can't be the entire solution to the problem. We need to be extra careful not to jeopardize the ecological health and integrity of the preserve."

Environmentalists worry that hasty decisions to allow cattle grazing will not only affect the drought-stricken preserve, but also set a pro-ranching precedent. "This decision is not being made by the board," says John Horning with Forest Guardians. "It's dictated by higher officials within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who are doing everything they can to accommodate the ranching industry on public lands."

 

Laura Paskus is an intern at High Country News.