Northern New Mexico's Chama Valley is the last place to expect a battle over a logging operation. The valley is full of people who for generations have harvested the resources of the land.
But in July, that started changing when
hundreds of "No Trespassing" signs went up on the thickly forested
mountains that are part of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant. The land
grant is in private hands, but it has never been developed, and
local people have fished, hunted and camped there for many
Steve Polaco lives at the base of the
mountains, beside the Rio Brazos, where a headgate diverts water
from the river into three ditches ranchers use to irrigate hay
crops in the area. He was shocked to see signs posted where earlier
in the summer, he and his 8-year-old daughter, Tessa, had spent a
pleasant day riding horses up the mountain near the old stagecoach
road to Taos.
Polaco and other neighbors began to
investigate. They learned that logging was about to begin and found
that a two-lane road had already been cut and graded. It was not
the usual narrow logging road that gets reseeded after logging, but
something people started calling "the freeway." Locals speculated
it would be easy to begin upscale development once this and other
roads were in and logging was completed. Unlike most logging roads,
they noted, these had even been given names, like Camino de la
Locals demanded a meeting with the
loggers, and on Aug. 10, 90 people met with landowners represented
by Los Brazos Project Limited Liability Co. and loggers, whose
company, Trees Are Us, is based in nearby Chama.
Residents learned that New Mexico's Forestry
Division had already issued permits to log 3,200 acres. One permit
required leaving a mere six seed trees per acre; others required
only a few more. Permits for another 1,000 acres have been applied
for since then.
Jim Mundy, chief organizer of
the operation, is both a real estate agent and one of the largest
landowners in the valley. Neither he nor the loggers would estimate
how many board-feet they intended to harvest. They would only say
they planned to thin the forest to lower the risk of a catastrophic
fire and take out diseased trees. Mundy said this should be done to
60,000 acres, or roughly half the watershed.
would Mundy say what kind of development might follow the logging.
He did say publicly that he would like to build houses if a ski
area - once planned and later defeated by local opposition - were
Residents worried that such large-scale
logging would lead to erosion. Silt, flowing down the steep slopes,
would likely run into the Rio Brazos and then into their ditches,
threatening the quality of both drinking and irrigation
In Rio Arriba County, farmers pressed
officials to get involved. Their concerns about erosion paralleled
those of farmers in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, where
a mountain tract is being logged by a private owner (HCN,
Finally, county officials called a
meeting Sept. 24, at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse, the site of
a famous land-grant shoot-out in 1967. More than 100 people came,
the majority of them opposed to the logging plan.
They bombarded the Trees Are Us operator, Jim
Hamm, with questions.
"How much lumber (do you
intend to cut)?" asked attorney Grove Burnett of
"About 1.75 million board-feet," Hamm
said. It was the first time a spokesperson for the project had
given an actual figure.
"On the Carson
(National Forest)," said Burnett, "they only cut about 1.5 million
board-feet on 3,000 to 5,000 acres ... That's a major timber sale
... so how can you contend that this is not a commercial
A few minutes later, Hamm answered:
"I agree it's a major timber sale," he said.
There was some discussion about the fact that
the county is zoned for agriculture. Then Hamm asked Burnett, "Are
you telling me timber (harvesting) isn't agriculture?"
"As it was defined in the (county zoning)
regulations, it's not," Burnett said.
day, Polaco and several members of the steering committee presented
the three-member county commission with a petition against the
logging. It contained 428 signatures.
rallied the commissioners, whose chairman, Alfredo Montoya, told
the planning director to meet with the county lawyer to draw up an
ordinance regulating logging on private land that would ensure good
water quality to ranchers and the community
Six days later, the county's land-use
planner, Gilbert Chavez, sent a letter to Trees Are Us ordering the
company to stop logging. He said the project was a "commercial
logging operation," and that the "burden of proof in addressing
(environmental) concerns ... to alleviate the negative impacts is
the responsibility of the developer." He added that water and
terrain management plans might be needed before the planners would
"It's private property,"
protested the attorney for Trees Are Us, Marcia Lander of
Chavez, however, has reined in
developers before. When he worked in the county planning office in
Santa Fe, Chavez studied the effects of gold mining in several
Western states and then helped write a stringent ordinance on
hard-rock mining. He said he sees the goal of his job as
"protection of the public."
As the pro bono
attorney for the anti-logging group, Grove Burnett is likely to
help Chavez write a new logging ordinance for the
"There's a clarity and a unanimity in
this community on this issue," he said. "(People know) what needs
to be done to protect the watershed."
same time, he warned of rough waters ahead. "(The logging operation
is) a nightmare," he said. "This is only the tip of the iceberg.
... Mundy said he could get 40 million board-feet off 60,000 acres
... so we're talking big numbers and big money."
Deborah Begel writes in
Tierra Amarilla, New
Contact Steve Polaco at 505/588-7758, or
Amarante Casias at 505/588-7121. They are president and secretary
respectively of Los Guardiantes de las Aguas de la Tierra Amarilla
(The Guardians of the Waters of Tierra Amarilla).