One rancher stands in defiance...

  • HOLDOUT: Hugh B. McKeen on the San Francisco River

    Michael P. Berman

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

GLENWOOD, N.M. - It took seven years for environmentalists to get cattle off 230 miles of rivers and streams across the Southwest. It took nearly three more years to get livestock off one mile of river controlled by rancher Hugh B. McKeen.

Until late this spring, McKeen was able to resist the 1998 federal agreement to remove cattle from the Southwest's rivers. He allowed seven horses and seven bulls to continue grazing the San Francisco River five to eight months a year, claiming they did no environmental harm.

That's no surprise, coming from a rancher whose pickup truck bumper sticker proclaims, "Common Sense Ends When Government Begins." He is the burr in the Gila National Forest's saddle, always ready with a quip, a jibe or an outright slam at the agency that permits 145 cattle to roam his Cedar Breaks allotment along U.S. 180. Stacks of federal paperwork tell a 25-year tale of conflict.

There have been scuffles with the government as McKeen has sought, with mixed success, to bulldoze junipers to open up his allotment's rolling hills to grass. Two decades ago, he worked with the state's congressional delegation to overturn a Forest Service 50 percent cut of his permitted cattle numbers. As a Catron County commissioner in the early 1990s, he helped push through the county's ordinances which tried to force the feds to share power with county officials over logging and grazing on public lands.

After the April 1998 river-grazing agreement was reached, McKeen and three other Catron ranchers filed suit, claiming that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider the effect of cattle removal on the environment and economy. In an affidavit, McKeen declared that the agreement destroys the successful livestock rotation system he had used for years: "We have the best riparian area on the San Francisco River, and our reward is to bind us into an unknown system."

"The river is in good shape," McKeen said last fall. "They can't show me any damage by livestock. The worst thing you can do is not rotating. Remove the cows? That wouldn't change anything."

Unending go-arounds

Larry Raley, the Glenwood district ranger, says McKeen's stretch of river, while recovering, isn't as healthy as the "phenomenal" stretch of cattle-free river on neighboring rancher Sewell Goodwin's allotment.

As for McKeen's cooperation with the agreement, Raley says the service had suspected he was defying the cattle restrictions, but lacked the work force to investigate. After complaints about McKeen trickled in from environmentalists last winter, Raley, who arrived in Glenwood in July 2000, wrote the rancher twice in March, admonishing him to keep cattle off the river. But on March 28, April 5 and April 9, cattle were observed in a closed pasture with river access, and Raley wrote McKeen about it on May 18.

As a penalty, Raley cut McKeen's permitted cattle numbers for this year by 20 percent, to 116 head. The order had no immediate effect, because McKeen had already voluntarily reduced his herd to 113. But Raley said that he wouldn't be able to graze more than 116 until Memorial Day 2002.

About the same time, the agency brought McKeen and three other ranchers more bad news. As part of an agreement to settle their 1998 lawsuit, the agency carried out a NEPA analysis of the ranchers' entire allotments, not just the riversides, and decided long-term livestock cuts were warranted. A draft report called McKeen's range condition poor to very poor and listed several alternative management plans, including one which would limit McKeen's grazing to seven months a year.

Seething as he flipped through this report, McKeen defended the condition of his allotment; it was no worse, he said, than land in a mesa-top exclosure that had not been grazed in 80 years. "The report is like comparing my house to the Taj Mahal," he said.

The trespassing cattle, he said, were strays that had mistakenly slipped into the river pasture: "He (Raley) didn't know whose cattle they were. It didn't matter. All they wanted to do was get back at me."

Later, McKeen won a series of reprieves. The Forest Service added a new alternative allowing year-round grazing with only slight cattle reductions; and after a round of mediation, Raley reduced this year's 20 percent cut to 5 percent, in return for McKeen's promise to fence the river.

Martin Taylor, a grazing activist with the Center for Biological Diversity, says McKeen's story shows that the Forest Service "continues to act as handmaidens of narrow business interests."

Raley, who worked six years on the equally contentious Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada, called the deal with McKeen a trade-off: "I felt it was important at this point for both of us to come to agreement on what we could accomplish in this go-round. That's what we've done."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Tony Davis

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