When Kit Laney answered a knock on his door Saturday, law enforcement officers from the U.S. Forest Service handed him a piece of paper announcing his Diamond Bar Ranch in southwest New Mexico would be shut down Wednesday and his 300 head of cattle grazing there would be removed – one way or the other.
Other Forest Service officials were busy nailing similar notices on fence posts along the highway and informing neighbors that after Feb. 11, they should not attempt to enter the Diamond Bar property.
Laney was not surprised. He knew someday there would be an on-the-ground confrontation to enforce a 1997 court ruling which says his cattle are trespassing on federal land. That day has arrived.
Laney insists the land in question belongs to him; the Forest Service says it belongs to the federal government. So far, the federal court is on the side of the Forest Service. But Laney is not willing to throw in the towel and give up the land that has been in his family since long before there was a U.S. Forest Service.
Moreover, in New Mexico, there is a “brand law” that says, essentially, no cattle may be sold or transported out of state without approval from the State Livestock Board.
Local sheriff Cliff Snyder has notified the Forest Service and other state and federal officials that even though the Forest Service has a court order authorizing the confiscation of the Diamond Bar cattle, they “cannot be shipped and sold without being in direct violation of NM Statute.”
His memo also says “I intend to enforce the state livestock laws in my county. I will not allow anyone, in violation of state law, to ship Diamond Bar Cattle out of my county.”
Last hope for ranchers?
Kit and Sherry Laney are one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ranching families who are being squeezed off their land throughout the West. This case has the potential to erect a barrier to further expansion of federal land takeovers in the West or to erase the last hope of retaining ranching as a part of Western culture in the United States.
Both ranchers and federal officials are watching with great anxiety as the conflict moves toward resolution.
The Diamond Bar Ranch is at least 180,000 acres and includes some of the most beautiful land in southwest New Mexico, situated between and including portions of the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas.
Laney’s ancestors began the “Laney Cattle Company” there in 1883 when the area was still a territory. In those days, “prior appropriation” of water determined grazing rights to the land. That meant the first person to make beneficial use of water obtained the “rights” to the water and to the forage within an area necessary to utilize the available water.
Laney’s ancestors acquired the water rights and the attendant grazing rights on the land now claimed by the federal government.
In 1899, the federal government withdrew from the public domain the land that later became the Gila National Forest, which included much of the land on which Laney’s ancestors had valid claim to water and grazing rights.
Several court cases have determined that land to which others have claims or rights attached cannot be considered “public land.”
Specifically, “It is well settled that all land to which any claims or rights of others have attached does not fall within the designation of public land,” according to Bardon vs. Northern Pacific Railroad Co.
Consequently, Laney reasons, since his ancestors had acquired legal rights to the water and adjacent grazing land before the federal withdrawal, his land could not be considered a part of the public domain.
Forest Service stepped in
When the U.S. Forest Service was created in 1905, one of its first concerns was to find a way to settle disputes among ranchers whose water rights resulted in conflicts over grazing areas. The Forest Service stepped into these territorial conflicts and proposed a way to resolve the disputes.
The rancher parties to the dispute voluntarily agreed to allow the Forest Service to measure the available water to which each participant had legal rights and designate the appropriate forage land required to make beneficial use of the available water. The designated area was called an “allotment.”
The ranchers paid the Forest Service a fee for their adjudication service, a portion of which went into a fund from which the ranchers could make improvements to the range and water access. The Forest Service issued a permit, which designated the forage area and the number of cow/calf units, or AUMs, that could graze the allotment.
Laney’s ancestors participated in this type of Forest Service adjudication process in 1907, three years before New Mexico became a state. The system worked well until 1934, when Congress enacted the Taylor Grazing Act. This law changed the status of the grazing permit from a voluntary process agreed to by the ranchers, into a “license” required by the federal government.
Few ranchers realized this law eventually would strip them of their rights and the land they had worked for generations.
Problems from outset
Laney’s problems began shortly after he acquired the Diamond Bar Ranch, adjacent to the original Laney ranch, in 1985.
The bank from which he bought the ranch had entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the Forest Service which passed to Laney, the new owner. The agreement required the owner to make certain improvements to watering systems within the Wilderness Areas on the ranch.
The original agreement allowed access to the work areas by mechanical equipment, but environmental organizations pressured the Forest Service to forbid mechanized access, and the agreement was modified. Laney agreed to use mules and non-mechanical means to live up to his end of the agreement.
When he acquired the Diamond Bar, the allotment provided for 1,188 head of cattle. By 1995, the Forest Service reduced the allotment to 300 head. When the permits came due for renewal on the original Laney ranch and the Diamond Bar, in 1995 and 1996, Laney decided he would not sign the permits, since he believed the land was his, not subject to permits issued for grazing on federal land.
Kit and Sherry have spent hours in courthouses in Catron, Grand and Sierra counties, searching titles and documents all the way back to the original claims of water and grazing rights in the 1800s.
They have developed a clear chain of title showing continuous private ownership of the water rights and the attendant grazing rights on the land that is now claimed by the government.
They believe the government’s original withdrawal of the land in 1899 could not include their land, since private property rights had attached to the land.
Neither the Forest Service nor the federal court are impressed with Laney’s reasoning, and the Forest Service is moving to rid the ranch of cattle. And without a means of utilizing the water and land for any productive purpose, the Laneys too will have to leave – unless they can get someone to pay attention to their rights.
Ridding the West of ranchers
For nearly 100 years, federal agencies and ranchers worked together to improve the range and to develop a growing economic foundation for Western states.
Things began to change with the rise of the environmental movement in the late 1970s. By the mid 1980s, there was a concerted, coordinated effort to rid the West of ranchers. In 1992, with the publication of the Wildlands Project, the reasons for squeezing out the ranchers, and other resource providers, began to come into focus.
The Wildlands Project envisions at least half of the land area of North America, restored to “core wilderness areas,” off-limits to humans.
Wilderness areas are to be connected by corridors of wilderness, so wildlife will have migration routes unhampered by people. The Diamond Bar ranch lies directly in the path of a key wilderness corridor.
Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 resulted in the placement of environmental organization executives in key positions throughout the government.
Bruce Babbitt, formerly head of the League of Conservation Voters, became secretary of the Department of Interior, and George Frampton, formerly head of the Wilderness Society, became chief of the U.S. Forest Service. These, and other environmentalists in government, came from the very organizations that promoted the Wildlands Project.
Environmental organizations pressured federal agencies with lawsuits and good-ol’-boy influence to impose the goals of the Wildlands Project through various government initiatives.
Kit and Sherry Laney are among hundreds whose lives and livelihoods have been forever uprooted by the government’s willingness to advance the goals of the Wildlands Project.
The Laneys say they have a ray of hope, however. On Jan. 29, 2002, Judge Loren Smith ruled in a similar case that Wayne Hage “submitted an exhaustive chain of title which showed that the plaintiffs and their predecessors-in-interest had title to the fee lands” which the federal government had claimed to be federal land.
Wayne Hage lost his cattle, but now the court has ruled that a “takings” has occurred, for which the government must pay “just compensation.”
The Hage decision has sent ranchers across the West rushing to courthouses, searching for and documenting the “chain of title,” to the land, grazing and water rights.
Kit Laney has completed his search, and recorded the “exhaustive chain of title” in each of the county courthouses where his land lies. He may not be able to stop the removal of his cattle, even with the help of the local sheriff. But Laney has served notice that he does not intend to roll over and let the government simply take what his family has worked for generations to build.
He says he will fight as long as he has breath. The Forest Service, and the other federal agencies now know they can no longer pick off a single rancher, and move on to the next. The Hage decision, and the determination of Kit Laney has inspired thousands of ranchers to resist the government’s squeezing and to push back.
These ranchers are from the same stock of ranchers who pushed the United States all the way to the Pacific ocean; once riled, they may push the Forest Service all the way back to Washington.