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Ranchers Seek Payment for Seized Land

July 03, 1988|SCOTT McCARTNEY | Associated Press

WHITE SANDS RANCH N.M. — When G.B. Oliver's father set out to buy land for a family ranch in the 1940s, friends told him not to buy across the border because the Mexican government could take it away at any time.

Instead, he bought 1,280 acres in New Mexico--and the American government took half of it away.

"It's hard to believe what happened," Oliver said. "My dad said about the military that it was like watching a snake swallow a rabbit. They wrapped around us until they got us in a position where we couldn't do anything, then they slobbered all over us and then they finished us off."

The government took half of the Olivers' land on a 20-year lease for part of the White Sands Missile Range, a vast Army proving ground for everything from the world's first atomic bomb to today's high-speed aircraft, bombs, missiles and even "Star Wars" lasers.

Like other ranchers, the Olivers were paid only a part of what the acreage was worth. And, like others, they continue to fight--losing the latest round in court this year.

"We're fighting the battle now for the second generation," Oliver said. "And my feeling is that we're fighting for the precedent of the thing. That's what's dangerous--that the government could put anybody out of business just like that."

About 120 ranching families have carried on the fight over the land, seeking a total of $25 million to $50 million in compensation. Some lost entire ranches; some, like the Olivers, lost only a part of the prairie to the missile range.

Their trouble began in World War II, when the Army decided that it needed 2 million acres in southern New Mexico for weapons testing.

The ranchers, forced to vacate and sign 20-year leases, were told that the land would be returned. But, by the time the leases expired, the buildings at White Sands were permanent; even though the war was long over, weapons testing continued.

The land was condemned.

Over the years, the ranchers have demonstrated, appeared before congressional panels and pursued their lawsuits. They acknowledge that, the way the law is written, the Army can condemn the land and pay whatever it wants.

Only two months ago, the U.S. Claims Court in Washington concluded that the ranchers "do not have a legal or equitable claim against the United States and that any payment to them would be a gratuity."

The ranchers just don't think it's fair.

"They took our lives from us. They just said get off and fend for yourself," rancher Howard Wood said.

Wood's family had more than 50,000 acres of land worth, at minimum, half a million dollars. After the Army took it, his mother had to work as a waitress in Tularosa, N. M., to support the family. At age 84, she now lives in a government housing development.

"If they bought it outright as a ranch at an amount that a fellow could take and get another ranch, that would have been OK," Wood said. "If they had gone ahead and taken the thing outright and never told us we'd get it back, that might have been better too.

"But they let the thing linger on, and we kept holding on, hoping to go back, and it turned out the contract we had was not worth the paper it was written on."

Oliver blames the dispute for his father's death of a stroke in 1972, one day after a heated meeting with a U.S. Corps of Engineers official.

Like others, the elder Oliver spent 20 years with his life on hold, awaiting the day he could get back the half of the ranch behind the wire fence. And, his son said, he never gave up hope.

"It killed Dad," Oliver said. "He could not believe his government would do him like this."

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