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Cattle in Gila Forest Stir Protest

By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
    SILVER CITY— The protest signs being paraded in front of the Forest Service headquarters here Wednesday said: "Remove the sacred cows" and "Where's the beef? Trespassing in our wilderness."
    Roughly two dozen sign-carrying protesters staged an hourlong demonstration in front of Forest Service offices Wednesday to express their impatience with the agency's failure to remove cattle that Catron County ranchers Kit and Sherry Laney are running in the Gila National Forest without a permit.
    Forest Service officials said the case is being handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office, which in June filed motions asking the federal court to find the Laneys in contempt of a 1997 order requiring the ranchers to remove their cattle from the national forest. A hearing date on the matter has not been scheduled.
    Forest Service director of range Steve Libby agreed with those who believe the agency has the authority to impound the Laneys' cattle now because they are grazing without a permit. Forest Service administrators, after consulting with officials in Washington, D.C., decided to let federal prosecutors handle the case.
    "It was decided that the course of action we are pursuing would make for a better long-term solution," Libby said.
    Ultimately, Libby said he believed, those wanting the illegal cattle out of the national forest "are going to be satisfied with how this plays out. Regardless, we have to let due process play out."
    Silver City businessman Mike Sauber, who is president of an environmental group called Gila Watch, said: "It's taking a painfully long time."
    The Laneys could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
    The Laneys became darlings of the New Mexican ranching industry in the late '90s when they waged a long legal battle with the Forest Service.
    The Forest Service eventually gained a federal court order in 1997 ordering the Laneys to remove more than 800 cattle from the 147,000-acre Diamond Bar allotment, because their grazing permit had expired. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the lower court's ruling.
    In April, the Laneys returned to the Diamond Bar, about 10 miles northeast of Lake Roberts and southeast of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, with a 300-head herd of cattle.
    The Laneys are trying to advance a legal argument the U.S. Attorney's Office says federal judges have already rejected. They argue that they have a private property right based on historical use predating the creation of the national forest around the beginning of the 20th century.
    "This is a land grab," said Michael Robinson, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City. "They've got free forage without any protections for the environment for months."