As summer gets ready to start, a federal judge is weighing whether to let a discrimination case brought on by a group of Hispanic ranchers to limit grazing move forward.
The ranchers claim the U.S. Forest Service is trying to push them from land in northern New Mexico that has been worked by their families for centuries.
A decision by U.S. District Judge James Browning is expected by September. Last week, Browning heard arguments on a motion by the Forest Service to dismiss the case.
At stake, ranchers say, is a piece of Hispanic culture and the economic viability of several northern New Mexico communities that depend on access to surrounding lands for everything from grazing to firewood.
Simeon Herskovits, an attorney for the ranchers, argued that the Forest Service was using the motion to short-circuit a full-fledged discussion of the issues raised by the case. He also suggested that the agency failed to understand the intrinsic cultural connection the ranchers have to the land.
"There's a very special relationship, history and heritage that exists in parts of northern New Mexico. This must be considered carefully," he said.
The lawsuit centers on a 2010 decision to cut grazing by 18 percent on the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa grazing allotments, which are part of an area recognized by the federal government for special treatment aimed at benefiting land grant heirs.
The Forest Service has argued that management practices by the ranchers contributed to overuse of meadows in the two allotments and that fences were either poorly maintained or in disrepair.
The ranchers disputed those claims, pointing to what they called the agency's failure to manage wild horses and elk grazing in the area. They said the decision to curb livestock grazing was retribution for them speaking out about Forest Service management practices.
Defense attorney Andrew Smith raised questions about whether some of the ranchers could sue the agency in the first place. He said some didn't hold grazing permits and others didn't file administrative appeals when the district ranger first issued her decision to limit grazing.
Smith also argued there was no evidence to show that limiting the business of one rancher would affect the community.
David Sanchez of the Northern New Mexico Stockmen's Association said half of the grazing fees collected by the federal government come back to the county to fund schools and other projects.
Sanchez said the area is rural and traditional industries such as ranching and woodcutting are the only source of income for some families.
"What's left for these people? If the government wants them all on food stamps, then take away their grazing permits," he said. "The government is attacking poor people. It's like David and Goliath."
The ranchers' lawsuit chronicles a history in which they say the property rights of Hispanics have been ignored and an institutional bias has been allowed to continue despite the Forest Service's obligation to accommodate their dependency on the land.
Herskovits mentioned during Thursday's hearing a 1972 policy that emerged following the raid of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse in 1967 over unresolved land grant issues. That policy noted the relationship Hispanic residents of northern New Mexico had with the land and declared their culture a resource that must be recognized when setting agency objectives and policies.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.