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New Mexico ranchers say battle over water rights jeopardizes their livelihood

Tensions between ranchers and environmentalists are nothing new in the American West, but in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains, climate change could be magnifying them. In the past few decades, the government has designated several native species of animal and plant as endangered, warranting protection that ranchers say violates the rights they were afforded generations ago. Josh Buettner reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tension between ranchers and environmentalists is nothing new, but climate change could be exacerbating one particular issue: water rights.

    From Iowa Public TV, Josh Buettner reports about one decades-long dispute in New Mexico.

  • Josh Buettner:

    Like generations before him, Spike Goss runs cattle in New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains, land later designated part of the Lincoln National Forest by President Teddy Roosevelt.

  • Spike Goss:

    My rights come long before New Mexico became a state, long before there was a U.S. Forest Service.

  • Josh Buettner:

    But in recent decades, endangered species protections have resulted in cuts to the number of head Goss can graze on federal land.

  • Spike Goss:

    Forest Service says we are a permittee. We're not permittees. We're allotment owners. We own our allotments. We bought it. And then we pay a grazing fee on top of that.

    And, yes, in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that we own the water rights.

  • Josh Buettner:

    In the late 1800s, Congress struck a unique set of land, water and grazing allowances by granting settlers property, known as allotments, to encourage Westward Expansion.

    But, over decades, Goss alleges shifting government policies and court challenges have left land and water rights unclear.

  • Spike Goss:

    They want our water. If they can get the water, they can control us. They have us. I mean, we're finished without water.

  • Josh Buettner:

    In 1993, the Mexican spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Soon after, two plants, the Sacramento Mountain thistle and the prickly poppy, joined the list.

    The Forest Service erected fences to protect critical stream bank habitat. Environmentalists say cattle congregate around waterways, strip away vegetation and upset ecosystems.

    Goss sued the federal government, but it took 13 years before a judge ruled against the Forest Service, saying the agency violated the Fifth Amendment by blocking Goss' access to natural water sources for his herd.

    Goss says, rather than all the fences coming down, he's actually seen more added.

  • Spike Goss:

    They just started this, putting these fences in the exclosures, these small fences in the exclosures.

  • Josh Buettner:

    Beth Humphrey, a retired district ranger, says the Forest Service is governed by a multiple-use policy that requires weighing input from several stakeholders, along with other tasks, like fire prevention and wildlife management.

  • Beth Humphrey:

    In general, if we fence out a piece of ground, it's to protect for threatened endangered species, or, in some cases, we will fence off an area to protect erosive soils.

  • Josh Buettner:

    In 2014, another threatened species, the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, was granted endangered species protection, further deadlocking rangers and ranchers over water rights and habitat.

    And in a meeting between the Forest Service and Goss' Sacramento Grazing Association, his wife expressed their frustration.

  • Kelly Goss:

    This is wasting our time. It's wasting your time. If you want this damn water, pay for it!

  • Josh Buettner:

    The dispute reflects the larger debate over land use and water rights. Legal battles and deadly confrontations between ranchers and federal authorities have occurred, most recently in Nevada and Oregon.

    Rural ranchers fear their interests are losing out to those who live in urban areas and favor environmental protections.

    Patrick Nolan is a member of Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.

  • Patrick Nolan:

    I think we need to be honest and say that the land here has been overgrazed, and we need to really figure out a way to bring it back to its glory of what it used to be.

  • Josh Buettner:

    But amidst New Mexico's harsh cyclical drought, water rights are critical for ranchers like the Gosses. And they say they will continue to fight against an agenda intent on disrupting their viability.

  • Kelly Goss:

    They just continue to take and take and take.

  • Josh Buettner:

    But ranchers' hope, with President Trump now in office, their rights to access natural forest resources will finally be resolved.

  • Spike Goss:

    We haven't seen it yet, but we hope, hope soon. We would like for somebody back there to come out here and take a good hard look at this and look at our issues and listen to some stuff that's been going on and look at some of our documentation and mostly follow the law.

    I don't believe they're following the law at all.

  • Josh Buettner:

    Goss' suit is still in court while a judge determines damages against the Forest Service. Because of that, the agency said it can't comment on the case.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Josh Buettner in Cloudcroft, New Mexico.

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