N.M. Federal Lands News

by Frank DuBois

The Federal Land Council News

The Cibola Controversy

On June 11, 2013, Mountainair District Forest Ranger Karen Lessard issued an order to all 19 allotment owners (including the DuBois allotment) saying that “due to severe drought conditions . . . I have decided to suspend all grazing on the Mountainair Ranger District.”  The order said livestock grazing would be suspended “for a period of not less than one year” and that “Return to grazing will be graduated.”

In response, your NM livestock organizations wrote a letter to the Regional Forester expressing concerns over the order. They wrote:

This appears to affect every permittee in the district without taking into consideration the various conditions over a large area and specific to each allotment. A blanket order of this type is unacceptable unless backed up by monitoring data for each allotment. Good range management does not come from following the Drought Monitor . . . Given the nature of precipitation events in the southwest, being highly variable with respect to intensity, duration and scope, it is highly unlikely that all allotments were equally affected.  An “across the board” livestock removal appears to be an arbitrary and capricious decision.

The Mountainair district would fit in a box that is approximately 64 miles wide from east to west and 62 miles long from north to south. It is ludicrous to think the intensity, duration and scope of rainfall would be the same across this vast expanse.

Congressman Steve Pearce also wrote to the Forest Service to express his “disappointment and disagreement” with the order. In addition, he encouraged the Forest Service to “activate an existing Memorandum of Agreement and utilize Section 8 of the Public Rangelands Improvement Act to bring together the permittees, the Forest Service and experts at New Mexico State University to seek an equitable solution.”

As expected, the new Regional Forester, Cal Joyner, wrote back defending the district’s actions. However, he did state “the collection of site-specific quantitative data on each allotment is impossible given limited resources” and pledged the Forest Service would “welcome the engagement and assistance” of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) and the Range Improvement Task Force (RITF) in the “assessment of forage resource conditions on the affected allotments.”

On September 25th reps from NMDA and RITF had their initial meeting with Allen Warren, the Range Management Specialist for the Mountainair district.  And sure enough, the first thing Mr. Warren did was hold up the drought map and say “have you guys seen this”? So much for “site-specific” range analysis.

The reaction in the countryside to the livestock removal order was swift. The Lincoln County Commission passed a resolution stating it was an “arbitrary, non-scientific, blanket removal order which did not take into consideration differences in resource conditions on the various allotments” and expressing concern over the negative consequence to the ranch families and the local community.  During the hearing on the resolution Commissioner Jackie Powell told Ranger Lessard, “You’re wrong, and it’s not right to do the people of New Mexico like this, especially those here since the 1920s trying to make it. They need to be worked with.”

The Torrance County Commission unanimously passed the same resolution, with Commission Chair LeRoy Candelaria saying, “I support these people.” During that hearing rancher Matthew Aragon said he was planning on moving cattle on the Jesus Baca ranch from the Monte Largo allotment to the rested Comanche allotment when the order was issued. “The ability to graze was unfortunately pulled from us at a time it was desperately needed,” he said. Aragon said Allen Warren visited the Comanche allotment and “looked at maybe 100 acres of the 20,000 acres. Even though the land had not been grazed for three years, he still felt he needed to remove us.”

The East Torrance Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) and the Edgewood SWCD also passed the resolution.  Writing to the Forest Service on behalf of the Claunch-Pinto SWCD, Chairman Felipe Lovato, Jr. questioned whether the removal of all livestock “will result in the most rapid recovery of forage conditions.”  Lovato, Jr. also wrote, “One of the factors that argues against issuing a blanket order like the one in question is the inconsistent nature of rainfall in our region. We all know that precipitation in our District is often so localized that both the total amount and the manner in which it is delivered can vary significantly from one pasture to the next.”

Meeting On Bryan Allotment

The first Section 8 meeting was held on November 4 at the Antelope Allotment.  Present were the allotment owner, Forest Service personnel and reps from NMDA and the RITF. Also attending was Lincoln County Commissioner Preston Stone.  Commissioner Stone says they all met at a designated spot, but that Ranger Lessard never left her vehicle for the thirty minutes or so they were there. The group then moved to a “monitoring spot”. Stone says he asked Allen Warren if the Forest Service had done a range analysis on this allotment. Warren replied “no.” Stone then asked if they had performed a range analysis on any of the allotments. Again the response was no.

It was at this point that, according to Commissioner Stone, Ranger Lessard got out of her vehicle and approached the group. Stone says the first words out of her mouth were “I’m pissed off” and that she had been “set up”. Stone says RITF’s

Dr. Sam Smallidge “addressed the fact that the Ranger District had prior notification of the meeting, and that no under-handed doings went on whatsoever.” Stone continues, “I challenged Ranger Lessard about her ‘pissed off attitude’, being that the allotment owners were the ones financially devastated by a decision she had made with no scientific data to back up a blanket removal of livestock.”

Livestock Return

After several more Sec. 8 meetings and the collection of data, on December 2nd livestock were allowed back on the forest.  Allotment owners received a letter from the Ranger Lessard saying the Cibola National Forest “authorizes you to stock your full permitted number and types of livestock on your allotment.” In January the allotment owners received their annual operating instruction for this year’s grazing season and a set of draft monitoring protocols.

In the January letter I counted the word “drought” six times and the drought map was referred to again. Will they be using the map or monitoring data for their decisions? Time will tell.

Further, the January letter has the audacity to state, “The severity of this drought has prompted a cooperative monitoring effort” with the RITF. No, the cooperative monitoring effort was begun because the allotment owners and Congressman Pearce requested it and the Regional Forester approved it.

Misinformation Spread

During the meeting on the Bryan allotment, the Forest Service’s Allen Warren told an allotment owner the Memorandum of Agreement on Sec. 8 of PRIA was “old” and “no longer in effect.” I was sure this was inaccurate and a quick phone call to the Regional Office verified the MOA was still in effect.

I’m intimately familiar with this issue, as I helped write the legislation while on Senator Domenici’s staff, and then later negotiated the MOA with the Forest Service. It’s an excellent tool that can be initiated by the Forest Service or the allotment owner. It provides for bringing in a third party whenever there is a potential disagreement. If the Forest Service had utilized this approach in the Mountainair district I probably wouldn’t be writing this column.

The larger question is why did Warren say this? It certainly doesn’t jive with Regional Forester Joyner’s letter stating they would “welcome the engagement and assistance” of NMDA and the RITF.

At a recent annual meeting conducted by Warren with an allotment owner and his family, the discussion turned to livestock grazing and other uses of the forest.  Mr. Warren told them “you people need to understand that grazing is not a priority, recreation and hunting is the priority.” I guess that explains a lot, although I don’t believe that is official Forest Service policy nor is it compliant with federal law.

Call For An Investigation

Lincoln County Commissioner Stone is appalled at what he has witnessed during this entire process. “I’ve never worked with a government agency where the employees had such an arrogant attitude as this bunch.” Stone says, “I feel the Mountainair Ranger District, without any second thoughts, should be investigated after seeing how Ranger Lessard and Alan Warren treated the allotment owners.”

The other Commissioners agreed, as they unanimously voted on December 17 to direct their County Attorney “to move forward filing a request for a Congressional investigation of the Mountainair Ranger District.” On Jan. 22, the attorney for Lincoln County filed the request for an investigation.

This whole thing has been an embarrassment to the Forest Service and has caused economic harm to the allotment owners, their families and their local communities.

Till next time, be a nuisance to the devil and don’t forget to check that cinch.

Frank DuBois was the NM Secretary of Agriculture from 1988 to 2003, is the author of a blog: The Westerner (www.thewesterner.blogspot.com) and is the founder of The DuBois Rodeo Scholarship (www.nmsu.edu/~duboisrodeo).