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Git Home!


Pressures from environmental lawsuits are hog-tying the Forest Service and ruining lives and ranches. But that's probably the point.
© J. Zane Walley, RANGE magazine, Carson City, Nevada

Ruddy-faced from winter winds and cow manure still clinging to his work boots, cattleman Preston Stone stood to address a meeting of Lincoln County, N.M. ranchers and members of the U.S. Forest Service. Preston was not happy. He testily asked, "How can I bring my lease into compliance if I don’t know what the problem is? I can’t cooperate unless I know. I’ve asked my ranger, and he says he can’t tell me because endangered species are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and their location is a secret. He can’t tell me why my leases don’t meet compliance."
     Preston’s words caused a stir in the audience. He voiced exactly what everyone was worrying about. All the permittees present were under the pressure of a lawsuit filed by Forest Guardians, other environmentalist groups, and an ensuing injunction from the Ninth District Court of Appeals. It looked as if many folks might have to give up their leases. The environmentalists alleged the Forest Service was violating the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) in 11 southwestern forests by not following guidelines for protecting endangered species habitat. Seventy-eight grazing allotments in Lincoln National Forest had been identified as non-conforming to the NFMA and district rangers were scrambling to bring them into compliance by March 1, 1998. "The environmental lawsuits are stacked up and coming at us," said Larry Sansom of the Forest Service. "Three lawsuits concerning grazing, riparian and endangered species habitat are filed. It is too early to tell who will be affected, but some allotments will have the amount of livestock reduced. It is impossible to predict what changes pending ESA-specific lawsuits will cause."
     The Ninth ruled in favor of the Forest Service on Dec. 15, 1997. Fred Salinas, deputy director of the Lincoln National Forest was cautiously happy over the Ninth’s ruling against Forest Guardians. "This is a big win for us. It gives us a legal precedence to use in these other lawsuits. Even so we are working hard to bring leases into compliance." Happy or not, the Lincoln National Forest officials, even weeks after the court decision, had not notified their permittees that the injunction had been lifted. "We don’t like to crow about winning," Salinas said. "Sometimes that can backfire on you." Lincoln permittee Fred Pfingsten solemnly noted, "Sure wish they had let us know. It would have lifted the gloom from a lot of Christmas dinners."
     Forest Service credibility has suffered much damage because of its ongoing failure to communicate. Agents did not inform ranchers what they must do to meet compliance, nor could they provide an understandable priority description.
     Dorothy Epps has been ranching the Lincoln National Forest since the 1920s. She, as did her father, has grazing leases in the Capitan Mountains. Dorothy, like most ranchers in the area, is upset and suspicious. "Until this little bird [Willow flycatcher] thing came up I never had any trouble with the Forest Service. They tell me we are on Priority-One and I don’t even know what that means. Initially we heard we would have to remove cattle six miles from national forest land. That would take practically all my cattle off. The Forest Service puts out a lot of information but never tells us what is wrong with our leases; never puts it in black and white. How can we fix it if we don’t know what is wrong? I believe they have wanted to kick everybody out for a long time. This may be their chance. My neighbors are so alarmed that they believe the only way to talk to the Forest Service is to take a recorder and tape the conversation."
     Rangers on the firing line caught between the cattlemen’s distrust and a cowed, bumbling, bureaucratic nightmare were scared to talk. It seemed they had been issued a gag order. An anonymous Forest Service ranger said, "I am afraid to talk to you; this thing is so hot. Hell, a federal marshall will probably come arrest me, but I will say this. We are trying our best to help our ranchers, but the Fish and Wildlife Service keeps changing the priority specifications. They foul us up at every move!"
     The Forest Service did cover their backside by sending documents, written in undecipherable federal-ese, to permittees. They were so complex, no one short of a federal attorney with access to a full library of agency regulations could possibly understand their contents. Sansom was asked to provide a description of the Forest Service’s critical or Priority-One habitat. "Those would contain riparian areas or source of water or intermittent water, riparian vegetation such as a cottonwood tree, and wilderness area would of course be taken into consideration. But not all of the factors would have to be present to identify a Priority-One lease. A lease identified as a Priority-One need not contain an actual endangered species. Only potential habitat is necessary."
     Sansom called on a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist to explain. "If I find a location with food, deadwood and a source of water, I would have to identify it to be protected." The biologist further explained that it need not be a potential habitat for listed species indigenous to the area, but species identified in the area. All the soft-talk boils down to this. Pending lawsuits and past decisions from a court far-removed from the grazing land of the Southwest are creating a situation in which a dry gulch with a cottonwood tree could be identified as a potential habitat for threatened or endangered species. The Ninth District set precedence for protecting such areas in a recent ruling against the Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The court ruled, "When a species is listed, critical habitat must be designated." Simply, public land and, in some cases, private property use could be drastically affected for the protection of absent species with no history of living or even visiting the areas in question.
     All this uproar, mistrust and apprehension is because of a salvo of lawsuits unleashed against the Forest Service by Forest Guardians, Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, and Dr. Robin Silver. They have a pat plan, an offensive winning strategy, and they work it hard. The environmental groups file lawsuits against federal land agencies, a savvy action that prohibits land users from defending themselves because the actions are not lodged against them. Additionally, the pubic relations angle is strong. They portray their organization to the media as concerned citizens standing up for the rights of plants and animals against the power and might of the uncaring government. Whereas, if they sued private citizens, the public would get a clear look at their yellow-dog principles.
     They almost count on losing in local district courts, then appealing to the environmentally friendly, Ninth District Court of Appeals, along with a request for emergency injunctive relief. The injunction request is almost invariably granted, so even if they don’t win the case, they have effectively clogged the machinery of government land agencies, and put more ranchers out of business. Plainly, because of their tricky use of the court system, even if they lose they still inflict such heavy economic damage that, actually, they advance.
     If the court does not rule in their favor, they dig out applicable federal court rulings, reword the complaint, and fire off another lawsuit. The Forest Service is forced to comply with the injunctions, and in recent years has been willing to settle lawsuits out of court. Using these tactics, the environmental groups cannot lose, as long as they can afford to keep filing lawsuits.
     It does not appear they will run out of money. They thrive on government agency and private foundation grants. Furthermore, they unite in lawsuits and mingle their funds to finance common legal efforts. They are united, strongly financed, and organized. These tactics have created mega-environmental groups which become so powerful they can be termed green cartels.
     The Southwest Forest Alliance is a conglomerate of 55 New Mexico and Arizona environmental groups like Forest Guardians, Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, and the previously effete Audubon Society. The membership numbers and financial resources have made this group the first green cartel.
     The Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, was impressed with green movements such as the Southwest Forest Alliance, praised them in his manifesto, and saw a logical development in their actions. "There are well-developed environmental and wilderness movements," he wrote. "The radical environmentalists ALREADY hold an ideology that exalts nature and opposes technology.... The ideology should be propagated in a simplified form that will enable the unthinking majority to see the conflict of technology vs. nature in unambiguous terms.... Propaganda of the rabble-rousing type may be necessary when the system is nearing the point of collapse and there is a final struggle between rival ideologies to determine which will become dominant when the old world-view goes under."
     Seems like the little old letter-bomb maker had it pegged about right. The environmental rabble-rousing publicity machine is well polished. Their innocuous propaganda machine is damn effective when it comes to winning hearts and minds. Deceptive slick television and radio commercials, pretty mailers and colorful magazine ads so bombard citizens they suffer green guilt unless they support the movement. The average "six-pack" Joe does not grasp that his donation may be used to deny productive people their livelihoods, erode his own freedoms and use of public lands. Indeed, good-hearted Joe’s contribution will cost him much more money in the end.
     The average American citizen caught up in the throes of the green publicity machine never stops to consider the dollar effect of environmental lawsuits. The timber industry estimates that protecting the Spotted owl has added $4,800 to the price of a new home. The Brooking Institute reviewed all major economic studies since 1970 and found the cost of environmental compliance to be several hundred billion dollars per year. The Rochester Institute of Technology says environmental regulation cost per family was approximately $4,200. I reckon Joe might wish he had kept his money in his wallet when beef goes to $15 per pound.
     The direct economic effect of the Forest Guardian lawsuits on southwestern ranchers is readily apparent. An unexpected and potentially disastrous consequence has been the effect on traditional agricultural lenders. Jimmie C. Hall, president of the Albuquerque Production Credit Association (PCA) and a strong personal supporter of the ranching industry, hammered that nail home in a recent meeting of the New Mexico Public Lands Council.
     "Ranchers on public and private lands, who might have an endangered species on their range, are facing drastically reduced operational funding from lenders like PCA," Hall said. "Lenders must examine the full force and effect of the ESA on borrowers. If ranchers, because of an endangered species on their lands, must give up control and use of those holdings, their repayment capacity is in peril and the market value of their assets diminished. The growers are in a double jeopardy situation; they must first move their livestock off, and then prove that grazing is not endangering those on the list."
     Is this effect on lenders part of the green scheme? Devaluation of ranching assets and shrinking funds for operation costs could force numbers of ranchers out of business. Public land leases for grazing may become valueless as their worth continues to plunge and the threat of endangered species on private lands could drastically reduce market value. Could not this deflation cause BLM and the Forest Service to lease, and private landowners to sell to, organizations like The Nature Conservancy?
     These lawsuits and consequences have many New Mexicans fighting mad. Former New Mexico Cattle Growers Assn. Director Al Schneberger is blunt: "These people do not care about conservation; it’s just a lot of mischief. They are a bunch of former hippies who turned to environmentalism when they grew disenchanted with socialism. They are community-destroyers."
     Captain Opinion, a journalist for the Albuquerque Alibi newsletter, was really to the point: "To save ranching and a piece of America, take away the environmentalist weapon. If there are no Willow flycatchers to protect, there will be no reason to shut down the cattle industry. So go out and kill the wimpy little song birds as fast as you can. The Earthies will squeak about this being an immoral and inhuman action. They’re right, but it is no different than what they are trying to do to the ranchers."
     Dorothy Epps’ granddaughter, 24-year-old cattlewoman Mary Folkner, resonates the disheartenment, anger and uncertainties felt by the ranching community. "The U.S. Forest Service tries to find the cheap way to win the battle. They didn’t prepare for the case, and they have lost a lot of ground. I can’t tell you what the future is. I can’t even plan for a future! We have such a battle going on we don’t know where we stand from one day to the next. I don’t believe the thinking process of the Forest Guardians will ever become reality. They affect the way that we live today but I believe their actions come from people in higher power. Nothing is as straight as it looks. If they run our cattle off our land, I will find something else to do. I will not give up the land for anybody! The land is family!"
     Environmental organizations have historically attempted to show alliance with Native Americans and minorities. Forest Guardian Sam Hitt so alienated rural Hispanics when he pushed for restrictions on firewood gathering, that they hung him and his lieutenant, John Talberth, in effigy at Santa Fe. The injunction outraged the county commission of Rio Arriba County, a predominantly Native American and Hispanic area. The commissioners attacked the Southwest Forest Alliance in a published letter to the editor of The Albuquerque Journal.
     "Rio Arriba is the focal point in a confrontation between its native inhabitants and a group known as the Southwest Forest Alliance," they wrote. "The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear another appeal by the Southwest Forest Alliance on Nov. 6. If these so-called forest-guardians win the appeal, they will have succeeded in banning both grazing and cutting on all public lands in New Mexico. Hispanic and Indian ranchers produce the majority of the cattle in Rio Arriba. These are small ranchers running only 100 head of cattle or less. Could this county [the fourth poorest county in New Mexico] handle the loss of almost $8 million in cash receipts? This most certainly will happen when you consider that the U.S. government classifies 90 percent of the land in Rio Arriba as grazing land. Is it right to force an exodus of these native people from their land and public heritage?"
     I guess the question we should ask ourselves is, should these people decide what is best for our communities? Of all the 16 members on the board of the Southwest Forest Alliance, not one is Hispanic, Native American, or even a native of New Mexico. How can they expect to know the best solution for our local, native environment?
     The County of Rio Arriba asks, "What right, other than conquest, do these people have to develop vision for our communities or for the lands stolen from us? It is a sophisticated, treacherous and deceptive attempt at cultural extermination. We don’t care about their vision; we demand the right of our people to determine our own destiny. We demand democracy and we demand the U.S. government honor the treaty signed with our ancestors. This is the decent thing to do."
     On Dec. 11, 1997, Forest Guardians of Santa Fe filed yet another lawsuit against the Forest Service, charging the agency failed to protect at least 18 kinds of rare wildlife on 107 grazing allotments in Arizona and New Mexico.
     Preston Stone spent hard weeks in December bucking five-foot snowdrifts feeding his starving cattle in the most severe winter storm to ever hit southern New Mexico. His voice was defined by exhaustion when he somberly noted, "It is a sad day in America when the government allows faraway courts to destroy the livelihood of working people. We do the best we can to support our government, but it doesn’t stand beside us."

*      *     *

J. Zane Walley is a writer from Lincoln, New Mexico. "This article was hard, damn hard to write," he admits. "It was kinda like peeling a rotten onion layer by layer. The outside didn’t look real good, but with each layer removed, it became more disgusting. I’m convinced that the green scheme is real." He adds, "The environmental rank and file followers absolutely support the concerted, disruptive actions of the green cartel leaders. On the other hand, ranchers are too busy working and too damn independent to become seriously involved. I believe unless ranchers and all productive elements of society unite to combat the greens’ unbalanced philosophy, extreme environmentalism will prove a threat to the economic and social well-being of our country that far surpasses that of any foreign terrorists. Folks, the enemy ain’t ‘red’ anymore, they are ‘green.’ They are growing and are on the offense."


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