Picture this opening scene in a modern Western tragedy: Panning slowly across the southwestern New Mexico landscape, snow-capped mountains on the horizon, the Gila National Forest sprawling in the foreground, the camera begins to zoom in slowly on the ribbon of road that slices through the 147,000-acre Diamond Bar Ranch. A small cluster of horses comes into view. Two cowboys are leading-herding a few horses from one work center on the ranch to another, some 15 miles away.
The sounds of hooves and the forest, along with an occasional word between Dale Laney and his 14-year old son, Albert, are interrupted when a Forest Service law-enforcement vehicle bursts into the scene – blue lights flashing. Thus begins a modern drama that is being written daily by real-life characters fighting a range war that will either rein in federal power, or unleash that power to put an end to ranching in the West.
Forest Service law-enforcement officers demanded that the Laneys get off their horses and display a permit.
“A permit for what?” Dale asked.
Dale was told the road and the entire Diamond Bar Ranch had been closed by a Feb. 29 order from the Forest Service, and that he needed a permit to be on it.
Dale didn’t have a permit. He had never needed a permit to move stock on a public road through his family’s ranch. He told Albert to keep moving the horses.
Another Forest Service law-enforcement vehicle appeared, and then another, blue lights flashing, sirens wailing, bull-horns blasting, horses running in different directions – until the Laneys rounded them up and led them through a canyon to their destination.
According to Patrol Capt. Mike Reamer, 14 law-enforcement officers have been deployed to the Diamond Bar Ranch, armed with semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and sidearms.
Why did these officers feel the need to chase two cowboys on horseback with three law-enforcement vehicles?
Reamer said the officers were new to the area and didn’t recognize the Laneys.
Why is the road closed in the first place?
Catron County Sheriff Cliff Snyder asked Forest Service official Steve Libby this question. He was told that the Forest Service was “concerned that outside people would come into the area and cause problems.”
In a March 4 letter to District Ranger Annette Chavez, Snyder demanded written evidence of “any possible threats, hostile or adverse action of any kind to the Laneys, the Forest Service or any other citizen of Catron County.”
The sheriff also said that he and the public at large are “beginning to believe that the law-enforcement officers’ only reason for being in the area is for the purpose of harassing the Laneys.”
The patrol captain told WorldNetDaily on Monday that there had been no evidence of outside agitators, nor any sign of interference from the Laneys, nor from any other local people.
There are about 400 head of cattle on the Diamond Bar Ranch and several horses used to tend the cattle. Kit Laney, owner of record, owns outright only 100 acres of the 147,000-acre ranch where the cattle graze. After the ranch was closed, Kit asked for a permit to go tend the livestock. The permit was denied. He is confined to the 100 acres he owns.
Four days after the closure, Kit attended a meeting of the New Mexico Livestock Board, which was discussing a Memorandum of Understanding between the Forest Service and the Livestock Board regarding the confiscation and sale of the Laneys’ cattle. On the way home, he was followed by law-enforcement officers, and once home, he was issued a citation for traveling on federal land without a permit.
According to Kit, a law-enforcement officer approached young Albert Laney, a passenger in Kit’s vehicle, pointed his finger at Albert and said, “I’m a law-enforcement officer, and we’re going to get you, too.”
The patrol captain denied that this event occurred. “It was not in the report,” he said.
As of Tuesday, the area was still closed, and Forest Service contractors had confiscated 12 head of cattle and moved them to a holding corral at another location in Catron County.
Before the cattle can be sold, the New Mexico Livestock Board will have to certify that the cattle are, in fact, the property of the seller and are being sold with the approval of the owner. This is the function of the Livestock Board, also known as the “Brand Board.”
Kit Laney is the owner of the cattle, and he certainly has not given anyone permission to confiscate and sell his cattle. The MOU with the Forest Service is supposed to relieve the Livestock Board from its legal responsibility and hold the Forest Service harmless for what Kit believes to be cattle rustling by the contractor, at the behest of the Forest Service.
The legality of the MOU is being challenged by a broad coalition of individuals and organizations, led by Paragon Foundation of Alamogordo, N.M., on the grounds that it was executed by the executive director of the Livestock Board without authorization by the board, that the action was taken in violation of the “open meetings” law, and on a variety of other thorny legal issues.
Michael White, president of New Mexico’s 17,000-member Farm Bureau has urged the Livestock Board to adhere to state law and not bow to political pressure or to federal agencies.
“The New Mexico Livestock Board is facing monumental decisions in this case, and our statewide organization will be watching very carefully (for) any possible precedent-setting actions of this panel as these cattle are gathered by a private contractor hired by the Forest Service,” White said.
Kit’s attorney has prepared a “Constructive Notice” for the contractor, which spells out precisely the action the contractor and the Forest Service can expect the Laneys to take. Kit contends the MOU between the Livestock Board and the Forest Service is illegal, that removal of his cattle is an act of theft under state law, and that the contractor will be held personally liable for his actions, including damages for any losses caused by the confiscations.
Since some cattle have already been confiscated, Kit expects to file formal charges in the state judicial system as quickly as the paper work can be prepared.
In the movies, range wars are fought when the big guys want to overrun the little guys. In this modern-day range war, the only difference is that the big guys are not big ranchers, but big government, big environmental organizations and big politicians who are convinced that the cowboy era should be relegated to history books.
The Laneys, on the other hand, are the little guys, who want nothing more than to continue living where their ancestors settled in 1883, doing what their ancestors have done for more than a century. They have invested their life building their ranch to pass on to their children. The tragedy is that if the big guys succeed in taking the property and life work of several generations of Laneys, they can also take the property and life work of every other Western rancher whose livestock graze on so-called public land. If the Laneys can halt this confiscation and taking of private property, or force the government to pay for what they are taking, then, perhaps, the big guys will have to rethink whether they can afford the cost.