Wildlands Network and the feds: stealing the west one ranch at a time

Marita Noon 2013 greyI saw tears in the eyes of ranchers. These were tough men; men who could scrape a good living out of the rock and tumbleweeds in the harsh New Mexico deserts. But when asked about passing on the ranch to their children, a ranch that may have been in the family for generations, eyes grew moist, jaws quivered, and grown men became so choked up they couldn’t speak.

Carolyn Nelson, who teaches kindergarten through third grade in a one-room school-house in Catron County, New Mexico, while her husband handles their ranch, held the camera crew spellbound as she told her story. She stated: “The federal government has taken away jobs; they’ve taken away hope. Shame on them.”

I spent two days with a film crew from the For the Record (FTR) television show that airs on Glen Beck’s Blaze TV.

A year ago, FTR did a show on border security. For the “Borderless” episode, the crew met with ranchers in southern Arizona’s Cochise County. After working with the ranchers there, when Nevada’s Bundy Ranch story broke earlier this year, the producers knew there was more to the story. Why would people from all over the West show up, en masse, to help defend a rancher they’d never met, against the excessive force of the Bureau of Land Management? For answers, the FTR crew reached out to the friends they’d made in Arizona, who steered The Blaze team to Joe Delk New Mexico.

The team spent three days in New Mexico—June 23-25. I was with them for two.

My first day was spent in the blazing sun on Steve Wilmeth’s Butterfield Trail Ranch. After an hour’s drive from Las Cruces, that included interstate highway, dirt roads, and rocky cow trails, we gathered on a bluff overlooking arid land dotted with cattle. The Organ Mountains, the subject of Tuesday’s shoot, could be seen in the distance.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. I cited numbers such as the 600,000 acres the monument encompasses when the private property is included; 1906 when the Antiquities Act—which allowed President Obama to sign the national monument proclamation—became law; and 95—the number of families who’d receive direct negative impacts from the designation. Now the numbers had faces. I heard their stories. I saw the tears. I felt their pain.

What surprised me the most was the vastness of the space. Even though we could barely see the Organ Mountains, and we’d driven miles on a combination of private and federal lands, this distant locale was still part of the “monument.”

Many of these ranchers’ families had cared for this land for generations—long before the federal government claimed it. They had an “allotment”—meaning they owned the right to graze their cattle on the, now, federal lands. Most ranches contained a mix of private lands and allotments. Yet, with one stroke of a pen, and talk of protecting a distant mountain, their property, their livelihood, is threatened.

Each rancher interviewed by FTR, had already seen friends give up and quit as a result of the increasing federal regulations that made it harder and harder to support their families and the families of the ranch hands—and harder and harder to feed America the quality beef they raised on their lands. The new National Monument designation was just one more layer that may be the last straw. Though the final management plan for the monument will take years, each impacted ranch faces uncertainty as to how it will be affected. But they know the history, and they know it won’t be good.

Each story was powerful. But, perhaps, the most compelling was that of Jim and Seth Hyatt. The father and son work together on the ranch. Jim was interviewed first. He told about the ranch history—the Hyatt family has ranched in the area continuously since the 1890s—and about the joy of working with his son and passing the ranch on. Next, came his son Seth, who shared how the ranch was in his blood. His brother, he said, didn’t take to it. He lives in Dallas. Then Haize, Seth’s two-year-old son—wearing cowboy boots and hat, and jeans held up with a belt and a big silver buckle—climbed up into his dad’s lap. (When I commented on Haize’s cowboy outfit, I was corrected: “That’s not a cowboy outfit; that’s how he dresses every day.”) Seth turned somber when he told how he’d like to teach ranching to his son, like his dad did for him, but now, because of the monument designation, that was in doubt.

Wes Eaton, was the youngest rancher. His family had ranched for most of his life on the other side of the mountains in Carlsbad. A year ago, an opportunity came up for him to manage a ranch. He jumped at the chance. However, a large portion of the ranch falls within the monument designation. He doesn’t know whether or not he’ll be able to continue to live his dream.

These ranchers spent eight years going to meetings, providing public comment, doing studies—anything they could to stave off the proposed monument; eight years where they were distracted from their actual job of ranching. All for naught.

When asked if they felt their government listened, the answer was universal. Not only did they feel unheard, they were confident that the goal was to drive them off the land.

Each rancher interviewed on Tuesday faces imminent expulsion as a result the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. On Wednesday, the villain was different, but the end game was the same.

The recording session started on Wednesday with Catron County Commissioners Glyn Griffin and “Bucky” Allred. In Catron County, they don’t have a monument designation, but ranchers in the region were being chased out by the reintroduction of the Mexican grey wolf—which the Fish and Wildlife Service, cooperating with environmental groups, insisted on bringing back to the region despite the direct threat they pose to humans and livestock. Both commissioners talked about the declining tax base in Catron County and how hard it was to provide basic services to residents.

Griffin talked about feeling as if he were fighting his own government. Allred said: “Our towns are dying because of the federal governmental agencies and the gang green organizations.” He continued: “I call them gang green because they are like a poison, a death.”

Both pointed out how listing the spotted owl, as an endangered species, had caused economic devastation in Catron County. Logging was stopped and family sawmills were shut down. Next, came the wolf reintroduction—promoted by the Center for Biological Diversity—which has made ranching even harder.

Paul Decker has spent his entire life in livestock, but he said: “It’s been especially tough the past five years in Catron County since dealing with the wolf issue.” Decker told The Blaze producers that the ranch he manages is 20,000 acres. In the past five years, they’ve lost 150-175 calves due to the wolves that need ten pounds of meat a day to survive. In ranching, Decker explained, there is one payday a year when the calves are sold for about $1000 each. If the wolves kill 50 percent of your calves, you lose 50 percent of your pay. But there’s more. Many cows have lost several calves. They fight off the wolves and try to protect their babies, but the wolves win. Some cows are so emotionally shattered by their babies being eaten by the wolves, they become stressed and won’t breed. Ranchers who kill a wolf threatening their livestock on an allotment, face huge fines and may go to jail.

If a wolf attacks a calf on private land, it can be killed—but the rancher had better hope that there is evidence. The calf needs to have teeth marks as proof of the attempt. Even then, the family protecting their property faces months of stressful investigation where they are assumed guilty until proven innocent.

One couple told about shooting a wolf on their private property. They are required to report the wolf’s presence to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) within 24 hours—but they called a lawyer first. Apparently, news of the shooting was leaked from the FWS to the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. Threats from animal rights activists were posted online: “When I find out who did this, I’m going to shoot his kids.”

Others told about their children encountering wolves in their yards and at their schools. Children waiting for the school bus in Catron County sit in a cage to protect them from the wolves.

Once the ranchers give up, wealthy people buy the property as a “retreat” or hobby ranch that they visit a few times a year—further hurting the tax base.

Ranchers in Catron County who are actually trying to earn a living, like those within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument designation, feel that they are being chased off the land; that environmental groups want to turn the entire region into a “wilderness area”—without human beings. They feel bullied by the U.S. Forest Service and the FWS, who are being driven by fear of lawsuit from the environmental groups. They feel their government doesn’t listen, doesn’t care.

It turns out, what these ranchers are feeling is real. Environmental groups do want them off the land—them and their cattle. The effort is called the Wildlands Network. The ranchers are quick to point out how they protect the land and how the deer and the elk are present because of the water and infrastructure they put in place for the livestock. “If you don’t take care of the land, the land won’t take care of you,” was a frequently heard sentiment.

Jerry Schickedanz, Dean Emeritus of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics at New Mexico State University, told me: “The environmental groups subscribe to the idea that natural ecosystem are superior to human altered ones. Anything man has been involved in is considered to be degraded and they have pushed the idea that human alteration is a bad thing—all humans, and evidence of humans, must be removed. I see this ideology as the underpinning of the Wildlands Network.”

Is there any hope for these ranchers? Are they destined to be bullied by the federal agencies and the environmental groups or can they continue to ranch the lands of their forefathers? Stories like those I heard along with The Blaze team are what prompted the level of outrage at government overreach expressed at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada. It wasn’t about Bundy; it was about bullying.

Allred believes they must fight for the transfer of federal lands to the states as was originally planned by the Enabling Act. He shook his head as he sighed: “We’ve become the weakest generation.”

Last week, I, too, would have sighed. But that was before the Supreme Court shot down the Obama Administration for its overreach. Perhaps House Speaker John Boehner can include these land abuses in his lawsuit against the Administration for its abuses of executive power. We can hope the Supreme Court would hand down its decision before the good folks I met are chased from their family ranches.


The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). Together they work to educate the public and influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom, and the American way of life. Combining energy, news, politics, and, the environment through public events, speaking engagements, and media, the organizations’ combined efforts serve as America’s voice for energy.

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