Joe Skeen, the blunt-talking sheep rancher who often irked environmentalists by championing agrarian causes during his 22 years in Congress, died Sunday night after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 76.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who had served in Congress with -- and often against -- Republican Skeen, called him "a vintage New Mexican."
"He loved the land and represented New Mexico's rural lifestyle with great skill," Richardson said. "As a congressman, he defended the state's border interests with incredible effectiveness. He was truly a giant in New Mexico's political history."
Throughout his career, Skeen defended private property rights, opposed increases in grazing fees and fought against the reintroduction of endangered Mexican gray wolves into New Mexico. A tough-minded conservative, he championed traditional Southwestern industries of ranching, farming and mining, often to the chagrin of environmentalists.
He also worked to fund the military, particularly White Sands Missile Range, and research and science projects.
Skeen played a key role in the opening of the federal underground nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. In the planning for more than two decades, the plant began accepting radioactive waste in March 1999. Skeen often called it one of his greatest accomplishments.
Skeen first went to Congress in 1980, winning the race as a write-in candidate after a judge denied him a place on the ballot. He was the first write-in candidate to win a major office in New Mexico history and was one of only three people in U.S. history to win a congressional seat on a write-in vote. The rancher went on to serve 11 terms, more than any other congressman from the state.
Before his service in Washington, Skeen served two terms in the New Mexico Senate and unsuccessfully ran for governor twice. He was also New Mexico's Republican Party chairman from 1963 to 1966.
Born in Roswell and educated at Texas A&M;, Skeen served in the Navy in 1945 and 1946, and later worked as a soil and water engineer with the Ramah Navajo and Zuni Indians. In 1952, he took over the family's 15,000-acre Buckhorn Ranch founded by his great-grandfather.
Skeen is survived by his wife of 58 years, Mary, and two children, Mary and Mikell.