Peace Breaks Out In New Mexico's Forests

Out of the angry thickets of the past, environmentalists and loggers cut a new path

 

VALLECITOS, New Mexico — When Bryan Bird drives up the winding road near this northern New Mexico village, he remembers the effigies he saw one stormy evening. The eerie figures swayed ominously from the forest’s ponderosa pines. Made of someone’s cast-off clothes, they represented environmentalists Sam Hitt and John Talberth — "and their wives," Bird adds, "which wasn’t very nice."

It was 1995, and Bird had just begun working with Hitt and Talberth at Forest Guardians, a hard-nosed environmental group based in Santa Fe. He was headed to a campsite to join activists protesting the proposed La Manga timber sale on the Carson National Forest.

Vallecitos is little more than an hour’s drive north of Santa Fe, but culturally it’s a long way from the state’s cosmopolitan capital. In the mid-’90s, times were hard. Logging had slowed dramatically since the 1940s and ’50s, when there were 72 lumber mills in New Mexico’s upper Rio Grande Basin. A large timber mill was in the middle of a drawn-out shutdown. Then, in August 1995, a federal judge halted all logging on national forest land in New Mexico and Arizona, in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

Rural residents throughout the state were outraged, but nowhere more than in traditional Spanish-speaking villages like Vallecitos. The Southwest’s logging industry was dying for many reasons, including past overcutting, increased global competition, and mills that failed to retool to handle smaller trees. But people needed a scapegoat, and the uncompromising rhetoric of Hitt and his cohorts made it easy to point accusatory fingers at environmental groups full of urban Anglo newcomers. One day, a pipe bomb appeared in the Forest Guardians mailbox.

"When the rhetoric gets heated," Bird says, "the extremists on all sides come out."

Bird and his compatriots lost their battle against the sale, but they may have won the war. For economic reasons, the La Manga area was never logged, although sawyers cut down a few big yellow pines "just to spite us," Bird says. But there are no effigies swinging in New Mexico’s forests today. "Everybody has taken a deep breath and stood down," Bird says. "Things have calmed down quite a bit since then."

And it’s not the calm that follows a death, when there’s nothing left to fight about. Since 2001, an innovative federal program known as the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) has made at least part-time allies of former foes in New Mexico’s environmental wars. Because of this program, Bird drove out to the Carson on a humid August morning this year to meet with a logger.

It’s a neat turn of events: Diehard logging opponents propose tree-cutting, while loggers scramble to align with environmental groups. Peace has broken out where violence once threatened, and, in small communities like Vallecitos, a few loggers are once again working in the woods. The new program has hatched a new forest industry in the state, but no one is sure whether it will grow into a truly sustainable logging economy. Like most of the trees in the Southwest’s tangled and fire-ripe forests, the program is young and green. So far, it has yielded more good vibes than treated acres.

Still, in a land where historic animosities often simmer just below the surface, good vibes are worth a considerable amount.

 

The logger Bird is here to meet is Alfonso Chacon. He runs cattle on the forest, thins trees for the Forest Service, and for a little extra cash, sells firewood and latillas — the slender posts used in Southwestern architecture and fencing. "I make 100 percent of my living out of the woods," he says.

It’s a life that, if not quite hardscrabble, is certainly hard work. It is also traditional. Chacon’s family has lived in the Ojo Caliente area for generations. Much of today’s Carson National Forest was once part of large land grants managed in common by Hispano communities. Some locals still deeply resent the federal government’s acquisition of these lands.

The grizzled Chacon and the youthful, raven-haired Bird make an odd couple. But touring the La Ensenada thinning area, they are all smiles. Thanks to a three-year $360,000 CFRP grant that he won with Forest Guardians’ help, Chacon has been thinning small conifers here from 260 acres, where pines, firs and aspens intermingle with grassy meadows.

The project is designed to reduce wildfire danger and promote the growth of the remaining trees, along with grasses and other understory plants. After a century of livestock grazing, big-tree logging, and fire suppression, Southwestern forests today — especially those dominated by ponderosa pine — tend to be far denser and more susceptible to high-intensity fires than they were in the past. Large wildfires have torched communities, including Los Alamos, N.M., in 2000, and Heber and Summerhaven, Ariz., in 2003. Out of those ashes has grown a widespread consensus that some thinning of small trees is necessary to reduce wildfire danger and restore more natural conditions. There is also a recognized need for regular low-intensity fires to keep the fuel loads down.