For Immediate Release:
CONSERVATION GROUPS SUE TO STOP ILLEGAL
ALBUQUERQUE: An alliance of six New Mexico and national conservation groups moved for an injunction in the New Mexico federal district court here today to stop what they say is illegal cattle grazing on the Apache and Gila National Forests. In their court petition, the groups argue that grazing has been ongoing for at least five months, in defiance of a 1997 federal court order against the same ranchers who illegally grazed these National Forests in 1996.
In April, Forest Service personnel reported hundreds of cattle grazing in the San Francisco River corridor and in the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses in the same areas where a federal court held in 1997 that livestock belonging to the Diamond Bar and Laney Cattle Companies were trespassing on federal lands, and ordered their prompt removal. In defiance of the 1997 court order, the groups say, the ranchers are again claiming the same frivolous private property rights to graze on federal public lands and have returned their cattle to the same two National Forest grazing allotments: the Laney and Diamond Bar allotments (see Background and map below). The groups cite Forest Service reports of damage by cattle to sensitive stream-side habitat on the San Francisco River and on the Diamond Creek complex in the Aldo Leopold wilderness, home to the few surviving lineages of endangered Gila trout.
Although the U.S. Attorney in Albuquerque has filed contempt-of-court charges against the offending ranchers, the groups are concerned at the long delay in removing the trespassing livestock. “The Forest Service needs to impound these cattle. The wilderness experience is being ruined. Cows have polluted and damaged streams and denuded lush grasslands,” said Silver City businessman and Gila Watch director Mike Sauber, a frequent wilderness visitor.
"These ranchers are treating our public lands like their private property and defying the courts, while their cattle are causing untold damage to wildlife habitat," said Dr. Martin Taylor, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “I saw cattle destroying the few pools where endangered Gila trout were still hanging on during one of the worst droughts in history,” he added.
"When these ranchers tried to steal the public’s land and natural resources in 1996, the federal courts threw out their claims and ordered they could not graze cattle on Forest Service lands without a federal permit. Now they’re defying the federal courts, destroying the environment, and turning a wilderness into a stockyard,” said Tom Lustig, senior staff attorney with the National Wildlife Federation.
"New Mexico's sportsmen are very upset by what these ranchers are doing. These areas provide prime habitat for big game and fish and it’s being ruined by this illegal, uncontrolled grazing." said Oscar Simpson, President of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
"This is an outrageous insult to the public and to wilderness," said Bill Worf, president of Wilderness Watch. "It's ironic, but Kit Laney and those who are supporting him are also doing great damage to all public land ranchers."
"At least two federal agencies, a state agency, and numerous citizen conservation groups have invested a tremendous amount of time and money into trying to protect and recover the Gila Trout. But, what is now happening in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness is rapidly undoing and wasting that hard work, reversing that progress, and undermining momentum toward recovery of Gila Trout,” said Michael Norte of the Rio Grande Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
The Laney family did not apply to renew grazing permits in 1995 for the Laney allotment on the Apache National Forest and 1996 for the Diamond Bar allotment on the Gila National Forest. However, they continued to run cattle on those public lands without permits.
On April 1, 1996 they filed suit against the Forest Service claiming an entitlement to run cattle on the federal grazing allotments, because their predecessors had established water rights and had grazed the land before it became Forest Service land. They also applied for an injunction against the Forest Service to stop Forest Service interference with the exercise of their claimed rights.
In December 1996, federal Judge Howard
Bratton ruled against the Laneys and ordered livestock removed. In
1997, the Laneys appealed to the Tenth
Circuit Federal Appeals Court to overturn Judge Bratton’s ruling.
In 1999, however, a three judge panel of the Tenth Circuit affirmed Judge
Bratton’s denial of the Laneys’ claims and ordered them to
remove livestock from the allotments, ruling that the ranchers do not
now hold and never have held a vested property right to graze cattle
on federal public lands. The Tenth Circuit also upheld Judge Bratton’s
order that the Laneys pay over $55,000 in fines and damages for unauthorized
grazing of National Forest lands (See http://www.kscourts.org/ca10/cases/1999/02/97-2140.htm).
In June 2003, the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico filed a motion under the same court case originally brought by the Laneys in 1996, asking that the Diamond Bar and Laney Cattle Companies be held in contempt of court for violating the federal court’s 1997 judgement. Also in June, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist reported “the landscape was heavily grazed and ground cover was lacking" on the Diamond Bar Allotment (where there were not supposed to be any livestock), and that there was “bank trampling at livestock crossings,” that the “banks were chiseled deeply,” and that siltation was “moderate to heavy,” in Gila trout habitat in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.
In July, Center for Biological Diversity biologist Dr Martin Taylor
reported similar levels of severe damage to Gila trout and Mexican
habitat in another drainage in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. In August
and September he also confirmed Forest Service reports of severe damage
to streamside habitat along the San Francisco River on the Laney allotment