In Rural New Mexico, Ranchers Wage Their Battle Through The Courts Cliven Bundy is calling on other ranchers to rebel against the government after the collapse of a federal conspiracy case against him. But it's unclear how, or even if, other ranchers will respond.

In Rural New Mexico, Ranchers Wage Their Battle Through The Courts

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. So the story of Cliven Bundy and his family has been closely followed by ranchers across the West. Let's remember here Bundy is the rancher who led armed standoffs against government officials. Those officials were trying to stop him from letting his cattle graze on public land. Charges against Bundy were dismissed. But this week, federal prosecutors in Nevada asked a judge to reconsider that decision. Now Bundy, for his part, has been calling on other cattlemen to rebel against the government. But in the remote mountains of southern New Mexico, NPR's Kirk Siegler found frustrated ranchers who have taken a different course.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At 9,000 feet, the lush forests of the Sacramento Mountains are like this island in the sky, towering over the brutal White Sands deserts.

GARY STONE: It's rugged country. It's - a lot of it is not accessible any other way other than horseback.

SIEGLER: Rancher Gary Stone's family homesteaded this open range long before Congress gave control over it to the U.S. Forest Service a century ago to regulate it.

STONE: The cold eats into me quick.

SIEGLER: In a meadow of crusty old snow, Stone walks toward a small stream by the side of a dirt road.

STONE: That water is important. That water is life.

SIEGLER: But there is a fence around the stream to keep the cattle out. The government says this is critical habitat for an endangered mouse. Stone's voice starts to shake a little when he talks about it.

STONE: They want to preserve a jumping mouse, and they want to kill an American culture and heritage.

SIEGLER: In arid New Mexico, the origin of pretty much any fight over the land is water, or what's left of it. And the story around this fence is messy.

STONE: It did close the cows off of this water, which is a personal property right.

SIEGLER: The ranchers don't own this land that they run their cattle on. It's public, but they do own the rights to the water that runs through it. Now, you can imagine things got tense. Their cows didn't have anything to drink. But what happened next is important.

STONE: This could have been another situation just like in Nevada very, very easily. As a matter of fact, we held people out off of a real standoff.

SIEGLER: Because the local ranchers believed the law was on their side, and in this case, they decided the best path was the courtroom. Sympathizers of the militia leader, Cliven Bundy, even offered to come in here with bulldozers and tear these fences down. But they were turned away.

STONE: Because we don't that. We don't want - we don't want to go to guns.

SIEGLER: For now, things are relatively quiet. Travis Moseley is the supervisor on the Lincoln National Forest.

TRAVIS MOSELEY: We could agree to disagree, but I think we all recognize coming to the table to work things through is still the best way to deal with things.

SIEGLER: About that fence, Moseley says his agency has to manage for all kinds of uses, not just grazing. It's striking, though, how tensions in some corners of the West remain just as high under President Trump, who's vowed to cut red tape for farmers and ranchers. Some people I met in New Mexico who aren't ranchers told me they felt like public lands have turned into this sort of lightning rod for a lot of the economic anxiety you see in rural areas right now. Travis Moseley, though, downplays most of this. He says the Bundys in Nevada get a lot of media attention, but they're not representative of most ranchers.

MOSELEY: Getting to that point where, you know, there's essentially a standoff I think is a fairly unique situation and not very - you know, repeated very much at all.

SIEGLER: Armed confrontations are still extremely rare. Across the West, literally only a handful of ranchers are defying federal orders to pay their grazing permit fees. And that's out of about 20,000 who operate on federal land.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They were locals. I think they were local guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, they were local. I coached one of those - his son in basketball.

SIEGLER: All 74 permit holders on the Lincoln National Forest are in good standing, but that's not to say all is just fine here.

SPIKE GOSS: We have never not signed our permit, but we have always signed it under protest, you know, or have for the last 20 years or so.

SIEGLER: Spike Goss and his wife, Kelly, will tell you the very idea of having to get a permit is a loaded topic.

KELLY GOSS: You do own something. You know, we don't own the dirt, but we do own the water rights and the forage rights, and you pay for that.

SIEGLER: Ranchers who use public lands pay modest permit fees, but they've also got tens of thousands of dollars and decades of use tied up in their business on the land.

K. GOSS: You can't just walk away from it. It's our livelihood, and it's what we want to pass down to our kids.

SIEGLER: The court case over the water - it was the Gosses who first filed it 14 years ago. Then late last year, they learned they had won. The judge ruled the government has to compensate the family if it's going to take their water. There could be appeals, but the Gosses feels somewhat vindicated.

K. GOSS: You know, we just aren't going to resort to violence. As important as these issues are and as much as we're going to keep fighting for them, we're going to fight to the courts because it's not worth human life for one thing.

SIEGLER: But before I left, Kelly also told me that what appears to have worked here for now may not work for ranchers everywhere.

K. GOSS: There is a tipping point, so I don't want to judge the Bundys or any of those other situations because, at some point, there is that tipping point where you can only take so much pushback from the federal government.

SIEGLER: And across the West, that tipping point may not be in the same place for everyone. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Cloudcroft, N.M.

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