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Alamogordo Daily News, September 14, 2011

Deal legalizes tree-cutting event
By Duane Barbati

Otero County Commissioners and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce will be allowed to legally conduct their emergency tree cutting ceremony Saturday in the Lincoln National Forest.

It puts to rest any fears that commissioners or Pearce may be arrested for illegal logging on federal lands.

Commissioners have been negotiating with federal attorneys in Albuquerque about cutting down trees on the Lincoln National Forest since Monday morning.

Commissioners and the U.S. Forest Service, through the U.S. Attorney's office, have signed an agreement that allows logging on one parcel of land in the forest.

The agreement also allows the tree cutting to be done on a parcel of land in Sleepy Grass, located within the forest, at noon Saturday. The event will begin at Zenith Park in Cloudcroft. Commissioners are working on making arrangements for participants and observers to travel by bus to Sleepy Grass for the ceremonial tree cutting because of safety conditions.

County Commission chairman Ronnie Rardin said he is pleased that commissioners and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Albuquerque reached an agreement.

"Working with the U.S. Attorney's Office has been a privilege and a pleasure," Rardin said. "I am pleasantly surprised. They're really professional at what they do. Michael Hoses, Elizabeth Martinez and U.S. Attorney Ken Gonzales handled it with professionalism. This agreement is good for both sides -- the county and the Forest Service. In the end, the Forest Service and the county will work together for one goal."

Commissioners voted June 8 to approve Dr. Lawrence D. Garrett to move forward on compiling a forest strategy plan to reduce the fire danger in the Lincoln National Forest. The plan is concentrated in areas around Cloudcroft.

Rardin and commissioners Tommie Herrell and Susan Flores, in the past, have said they commissioned Garrett to do the study because of the extreme drought and fire danger, and because of the federal government's alleged lack of properly managing the forest.

At a public hearing Sept. 9, commissioners said they planned to implement Garrett's plan on a one-acre parcel of land with the support of Pearce.

Rardin has said he and commissioners could no longer stand idly by without doing something to help protect the health, safety and welfare of county residents, and improve forest watershed in communities within and around the forest.

Due to extreme drought conditions and the Mayhill Fire, the Lincoln National Forest was closed between May 12 and June 19, but fire restrictions were not lifted until Aug. 18.

Rardin said commissioners and Pearce were going to go ahead with the tree-cutting plan on Saturday regardless if the agreement was in place or not.

"I am very happy we're going ahead this way because we're working together. That's what it takes," he said. "We can't be lone rangers, but if we have to we will. We will go forward. Congressman Pearce will still cut the first tree."

Herrell said he is happy about achieving a workable solution with the Forest Service.

"The consolidation between the two units is a very workable solution," Herrell said. "We worked through it in open bargaining. They agreed with us and we agreed with them. I am very surprised we were able to achieve it. Monday morning it looked like they wanted to throw us in jail and file injunctions. Now we have a working relationship. It's a great benefit."

Copyright © 2011MediaNews Group.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton