ALBUQUERQUE — It’s up to a federal judge to decide whether to let a case move forward in which a group of Hispanic ranchers is suing the U.S. Forest Service over a decision to limit grazing on historic land grant areas in Northern New Mexico.

The ranchers claim the agency is discriminating by trying to push them from land that has been worked by their families for centuries.

U.S. District Judge James Browning heard arguments Thursday on a motion by the Forest Service to dismiss the case. He’s expected to make a decision by September.

At stake, ranchers say, 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 firewood.

Simeon Herskovits, an attorney for the ranchers, argued that the Forest Service was using the motion to short-circuit a full-fledged discussion of the issues raised by the case. He also suggested that the agency failed to understand the intrinsic cultural connection the ranchers have to the land.

“There’s a very special relationship, history and heritage that exists in parts of Northern New Mexico. This must be considered carefully,” he said.

The lawsuit centers on a 2010 decision to cut grazing by 18 percent 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.

The Forest Service has argued that management practices by the ranchers contributed to overuse of meadows in the two allotments and that fences were either poorly maintained or in disrepair.

The ranchers disputed those claims, pointing to what they called the agency’s failure to manage wild horses and elk grazing in the area. They said the decision to curb livestock grazing was retribution for them speaking out about Forest Service management practices.

Defense attorney Andrew Smith raised questions about whether some of the ranchers could sue the agency in the first place. He said some didn’t hold grazing permits and others didn’t file administrative appeals when the district ranger first issued her decision to limit grazing.

Smith also argued there was no evidence to show that limiting the business of one rancher would affect the community.

David Sanchez of the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association said half the grazing fees collected by the federal government come back to the county to fund schools and other projects.

Sanchez said the area is rural, and traditional industries such as ranching and woodcutting are the only sources of income for some families.

“What’s left for these people? If the government wants them all on food stamps, then take away their grazing permits,” he said. “The government is attacking poor people. It’s like David and Goliath.”

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 their dependency on the land.

Herskovits mentioned during Thursday’s hearing a 1972 policy that emerged following the raid of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse in 1967 over unresolved land grant issues. That 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.

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(8) comments

Tom Ribe

This is unbelievable. The Forest Service allows these areas to be overgrazed to the point where soils, wildlife, and streams are ruined. In a drought year when the grass is not growing they ask the ranchers to cut their cattle numbers so there will be grass in the future. This is elementary conservation practice but to the local ranchers it is racism. Unbelievable. The Forest Service has the same policies all over the United Sttates and true, right wingers like Cliven Bundy object in Nevada too but they use different arguments. For them its unconstitutional which is utter nonsense also.

The Forest Service is absolutely right to cut cattle numbers. They are exactly right. In fact we should be helping these ranchers find other work or the government could bring them feed to their properties so they could keep the cattle at home and get them out of the forest where they are destructive. It would cost the taxpayers far less than the subsidized land damaging grazing they carry out now on the forests of northern New Mexico. People should see this for what it is, a childish rebellion against necessary oversight by the Forest Service.

john guapo

Yup New Mexican ranchers are responsible for global warming and not McDonald's the logging companies or BP. All the environmentalists are always talking about shutting down local ranchers so the narrative of cowspiracy is a lie. Funny thing is when I buy my permits I want to work with the forest service and the environments to protect animals and nature. I would be willing to give some but it feels like everyone just wants to shut ranchers down. The land was fine for centuries when people grazed. Times are different water is scarce the earth is dying but that is not our fault in Northern New Mexico. We do need to work well with people for a better future but we can not give up our rights either.

Jerry Black

Grazing fees don't even pay for the damage cows do to OUR public lands. i.e…overgrazing, destroying riparian areas, trampling stream banks, destroying fish habitat, and eating forage that would support more diverse wildlife.
$1.65 per AUM is a joke

JC Corcoran

Bad Ranchers
http://dailypitchfork.org/?p=742

Carolyn DM

Will the big ole chip on the shoulders ever fall?

john guapo

I think the ranchers are only suing because they had their permits cut. I am sick of the demonetization of the ranchers. All they want is access to the land they grew up on.

Carolyn DM

And that's all fine and dandy! But why do they have to throw the race card in to it? I don't see any mention of a bunch of gringos being allowed to do something the Hispanics aren't being allowed. Gets a little old.

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