NEWS RELEASE : For Immediate Release: December 22, 2003
Contacts: Michael J. Robinson, Center for Biological Diversity, 505-534-0360
Federal court holds ranchers in contempt for grazing on
national forest lands
On Thursday, December 18, 2003, Federal Judge William P. Johnson in Albuquerque held the Diamond Bar and Laney Cattle companies, and their owners Kit and Sherry Laney, in contempt for violating the court’s December 1996 livestock removal order. The judge indicated he would shortly issue an injunction that would again order the removal of hundreds of cattle from the two former national forest grazing allotments at issue, both officially closed to livestock. The case is Diamond Bar Cattle Co., et al v. the United States. The 1996 ruling had been affirmed on February 23, 1999 by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (see http://www.kscourts.org/ca10/cases/1999/02/97-2140.htm).
Prior to this ruling, on December 16, 2003, the judge allowed six non-profit conservation groups to enter the case as interveners. These organizations sought intervener status because the U.S. Forest Service had not exercised its right to impound the trespassing cattle, which have been illegally trespassing and grazing on the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas and other areas of the Gila and Apache National Forests in New Mexico from at least April 2003 to the present, with no grazing permit from the Forest Service.
The interveners are the National Wildlife Federation, Center for Biological Diversity, Gila Watch, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and Wilderness Watch.
In a lawsuit against the Forest Service filed on April 1, 1996, the Diamond Bar and Laney Cattle Companies claimed private property rights to the national forest lands. In the latest iteration of the case, this year, the Laneys, who owned the companies, filed a series of legal papers in Catron and other counties clerks' offices to dissolve their cattle companies and convey their purported assets, including livestock and national forest lands, to Kit and Sherry Laney.
Judge Johnson rejected their claim that these legal papers allowed the Laneys, as individuals, to disregard and violate the previous court rulings, describing these paper maneuvers as “pure chicanery” and finding that “the tactics used by the Laneys, especially in light of their timing, are merely a duplicitous attempt to evade the operation and effect of this Court’s Orders and the judgment of the Tenth Circuit.”
“The court relied on its prior decisions that reaffirmed that the American people own the national forests,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, in Pinos Altos, New Mexico, adjoining the Gila National Forest.
“The Laneys’ attempt to steal and vandalize public property, under their trumped up private property claim, discredits responsible ranchers who are good stewards of the public lands they use. The court has again affirmed that the Laneys have no right to monopolize and destroy public lands for their own private gain,” said Tom Lustig, a staff attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.
Robinson also noted that the Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in the year 2000 (reiterating a 1911 Supreme Court ruling to the same effect) that grazing on public lands is a privilege and not a right.
The national forest lands at issue are the Diamond Bar and Laney grazing allotments, which had been used by the Diamond Bar and Laney Cattle Companies up until 1996, when the plaintiffs first made their private property claims to the Gila and Apache National Forests, refusing to apply for grazing permits, but herding their cattle onto the forests nonetheless.
The Diamond Bar allotment consists of 146,470 acres and the Laney allotment consists of 27,926 acres, for a total of approximately 272 square miles.
Both the Federal District Court for New Mexico and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Laneys’ private property claims, and in 1997 the district court ordered removal of their cattle and payment of over $55,000 in trespass fees. It took the Laneys about two years to remove their cows, finally effecting the removal by herding them on a circuitous route through the Gila Wilderness down the Gila River, destroying the streamside vegetation in the process. Although the Laneys paid over $55,000 for their 1996 trespasses (assisted by a special livestock industry fund), they didn’t pay a cent for the destruction of the public lands. Moreover, some estimate that the Laneys grossed over $600,000 on sales of their cattle after their 1996 trespass.
By 2001 the Laneys had finally paid their fines and removed the trespassing cattle. However, as the public lands were beginning to heal, in April 2003, in direct defiance of the court’s 1996 order, the Laneys again returned cattle to the same areas of the Gila and Apache National Forests.
After the trespass resumed this past spring, 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 Final Judgment.
Judge Johnson’s ruling noted that “The United States has authority, pursuant to 36 C.F.R. §262.10 and the common law doctrine of trespass, to remove and impound unauthorized livestock from National Forest lands and need not seek or obtain a court order to do so.” The conservationist interveners had been urging the Forest Service to use this authority (rather than waiting for a new court order) since June.
Contact Michael Robinson for a map of the areas in question and photos of the trespass cattle.