The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Fences, locked gates raise questions about federal authority in rural New Mexico county

  • Print

WEED, N.M. - The latest dispute over federal control of land and water in the West has erupted along the banks of the Agua Chiquita, a small spring-fed stream in the mountains of southern New Mexico where the federal government has installed metal fences and locked gates to keep cattle out.

The move has enraged one rural county, where the sheriff has been ordered by the county commission to cut the locks. The U.S. attorney for the district of New Mexico hoped a meeting Friday would ease tensions enough to avoid an escalation like the armed standoff last month over grazing rights in Nevada.

The discussion resulted only in more frustration and disappointment.

Otero County Commissioner Ronny Rardin said after the meeting that the dispute was far from over.

"Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the commission, the sheriff and the citizens of Otero County to stand up for our constitutional rights," he said.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico said no resolution was reached during the meeting and that the office will continue to monitor the situation "to ensure that public safety is preserved" in Otero County.

"To that end, the U.S. Attorney's Office will make every effort to facilitate a dialogue between county officials and the Forest Service," the office said.

Decades in the making, the dispute in Otero County centres on whether the Forest Service has the authority to keep ranchers from accessing Agua Chiquita, which means Little Water in Spanish. In wet years, the spring can run for miles through thick conifer forest. This summer, much of the stream bed is dry.

The Forest Service says the enclosures are meant to protect what's left of the wetland habitat. Forest Supervisor Travis Moseley said the metal fences and gates simply replaced strands of barbed wire that had been wrecked over the years by herds of elk.

The Otero County Commission passed a resolution earlier this week declaring that the Forest Service doesn't have a right to control the water. Ranchers say they believe the move is an effort by the federal government to push them from the land.

"If we let them take over our water rights, that's the first step. Then we would have nothing left here," said Gary Stone, head of the Otero County Cattleman's Association.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said what's happening in Otero County is another example of overreach by the federal government.

"These disputes could be easily avoided if federal bureaucrats would stick to their constitutional oath and respect property rights," he said.

With no resolution in sight, Sheriff Benny House said Friday he plans to continue investigating whether forest employees are breaking state law by fencing off the water. The commission is also seeking a congressional hearing on the matter.

Rancher Ed Eldridge is next in line to see a fence erected around the water on his allotment.

"I don't think any foreign power could take us over, but we might lose our country from within our borders if we lose our constitutional rights," Eldridge said.

Still, Eldridge, Stone and other residents said they aren't looking for an armed standoff with the federal government. They just want their water and property rights recognized and respected, they said.

Attorney Blair Dunn, who is representing the county, said he's worried that transparency and a media spotlight could be the only things that prevent the dispute from reaching a dangerous boiling point.

"Generally, cooler heads prevail when we're able to sit everybody down and figure out something that works," Dunn said.

Moseley of the Forest Service said he's not surprised by the conflict, given the pressure the agency is under to manage the land for different uses.

"I can't speak to a broader spectrum of federal regulations and how they affect private businesses and lives, but I don't believe there is a conspiracy per se," he said when asked about ranchers' claims of being pushed from the land.

County Commissioner Tommie Herrell disagreed. Describing the agency's actions as tyranny, he said the Forest Service is unwilling to temporarily open the gates while the parties search for long-term solutions.


Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Soca and Reggae Festival and Weekend Weather

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 060711 Chris Pedersen breeds Monarch butterflies in his back yard in East Selkirk watching as it transforms from the Larva or caterpillar through the Chrysalis stage to an adult Monarch. Here an adult Monarch within an hour of it emerging from the Chrysalis which can be seen underneath it.
  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Gardening Column- Assiniboine Park English Garden. July 19, 2002.

View More Gallery Photos


Will you miss Grandma Elm?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google