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N.M. Had its Own Malheur

N.M. Had its Own Malheur

There was a rancher-government conflict here in New Mexico similar in origin to the showdown in Oregon


Some years ago in Santa Fe, I co-hosted a meeting with tribal and pueblo leaders seeking their participation in preparing the first statewide water plan. I paraphrase one elderly gentleman’s comment:
“Many years ago some men came to count our sheep and cattle. And later they came back and took some of them. I’m not so sure we want to work with you on our water.”

Distrust of the government by those who work livestock on the land knows no ethnic boundaries or time limitations. Friction over regulatory action has been endemic among the stockmen of the West since the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. It went critical last month in the occupation at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon.

The area was first settled in the 1860s by miners and stockmen. The Oregon refuge was established in 1908 – ending almost a half-century of unregulated use of federal lands by stockmen. Families, who for generations had scratched a living out of the wide open spaces with no restrictions beyond those imposed by Mother Nature, suddenly found themselves confronted by layers of government-imposed requirements.

There is a natural-world link between Malheur and Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge here in New Mexico. Greater sandhill cranes, winter visitors to New Mexico, spend their summers in Malheur. More importantly to the local relevance of the Malheur standoff, there was a rancher-government conflict here in New Mexico similar in origin to the showdown in Oregon.

Back in the 1990s, Kit Laney and his then-wife Sherry Farr acquired the Diamond Bar Ranch in Southwest New Mexico. The ranch was composed largely of federal grazing allotments in the Gila and Apache National Forests. The U.S. Forest Service adjusted the carrying capacity of the Laneys’ allotments from some 1,188 head of cattle down to 300, “which brought the Laneys to the point of financial ruin,” according to a statement by the Catron County Commission, as reported by the Albuquerque Journal.

When the Laneys refused to comply by reducing the size of their herd grazing on federal land, the Forest Service obtained a court order and the Laneys were subsequently ruled to be in contempt.

After years of legal maneuvering in state court and before the New Mexico Livestock Board, a private contractor accompanied by a number of federal officers went onto the allotment in 2004 to round up and remove the cattle. Kit Laney was charged with assaulting a federal officer for allegedly riding his horse at three Forest Service officers and shoving two officers with his hands. He did not have a gun. After pleading guilty, Laney was sentenced to the minimum of five months in federal custody.

Laney had the strong support of the ranching community in New Mexico and elsewhere. In a 2004 Albuquerque Journal report, Al Schneberger, a neighboring rancher and former executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, said “I don’t know a better cowman or a harder worker or a better man … Kit believes in the law, and he believes in justice and he believes in truth, and he believes the law will be on his side if he ever gets a hearing.”

The law was served, notwithstanding the fact that the target, along with his neighbors and peers, felt he had gotten a very unjust deal.

It ended with a scuffle, but more serious violence was avoided perhaps by prudence and respect for law of the protagonists – and by a significant showing of government strength at the roundup.

It bears emphasizing that the ranch men and women caught up in these kinds of confrontations are mostly salt-of-the-earth, patriotic, hardworking American citizens. Their objective isn’t to overthrow the government; it is to get the justice they feel they have been denied by their government.

Perhaps the years-long process which followed the Laney contempt ruling was because of the bitter federal experiences at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1992 and at the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993.

At Ruby Ridge, federal agents lost one agent and killed the 14-year-old son and the wife of Randy Weaver, who had been sought on the relatively insignificant charge of sale of illegal shotguns. Waco was a paramilitary operation that ended in the deaths by gunshot and fire of scores of followers, women and children included, of cult leader David Koresh.

It is not a reach to hypothesize that Ammon Bundy and his fellow Malheur occupiers were encouraged by the failure of federal authorities to follow up on a 2014 armed standoff over grazing rights on the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada.

In contrast to Laney, guns and threats were prominent throughout – and the occupations in both Nevada and Oregon were not generally supported by its neighbors. After an extended period of attempted negotiations, one of the armed Malheur occupiers was shot dead by Oregon troopers during an attempted roadblock arrest.

Government must respond with levels of force commensurate to the threat posed when confrontations go beyond the limits of constitutionally protected protest. Certainly, forbearance is preferable to avoidable death. However, those who bring guns to a showdown effectively set the rules of engagement by their equipment and their rhetoric.

Bill Hume is a former editorial page editor of the Albuquerque Journal and later served as a policy adviser to former Gov. Bill Richardson.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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