Life in the transition zone
The last time I knocked on Luis Torres’ front door in San Pedro, N.M., he was inside on the phone, talking and joking in a rapid-fire combination of Spanish and English that made my head spin. On the other end of the phone was Alfonso Chacon, a forest contractor featured in this issue’s cover story. The two were hashing out some of the details surrounding a tree-thinning project, which Chacon had secured funding for through the innovative Collaborative Forest Restoration Program.
Chacon had hired Luis partly because Luis shares his deep, multigenerational ties to the people and land of northern New Mexico. But he also appreciated Luis’ ability to find his way through the often-confusing world of land-management agencies, grant-making and Anglo environmentalists. On my previous visit, Luis and I visited foundations in Santa Fe and then stopped at the office of the Forest Guardians, a group that often uses lawsuits and appeals to stop logging and grazing on public land. There, Luis carried on an in-depth conversation about ecology that ended with him inviting the executive director to come up North to meet some of his friends and walk the land.
It’s no coincidence that, today, Forest Guardians is collaborating with Chacon on a forest-restoration project. Luis, who has been on the board of High Country News for more than a decade, is one of those people who seems to be able to float across the kind of cultural boundaries that stop the rest of us in our tracks.
"If you just hang around Chicanos, you won’t learn squat; the same thing if you just hang around with whites," he says. "I’ve always found that the most interesting place is in the transition zone where they intersect — just as the most interesting habitat in a landscape is where the meadows and the trees come together."
Luis has been a community organizer since the 1960s, but his work in community forestry began in the late ’80s, when he was employed by an environmental organization — the Southwest Research and Information Center. He and a fellow staffer were sent up to the small, largely Hispanic village of Vallecitos, to look into a severe erosion problem.
"I quickly discovered that erosion was a secondary problem," he recalls. "The community’s real challenge was, ‘What the hell do we do now that the timber mill is closed?’ "
Over the next several years, Luis helped organize the Madera Forest Products Association, which worked on developing a new forestry economy based on cutting small trees. Some progress was made, but a couple of years later it hit a snag, when key Forest Service staffers changed. Not long after, environmental lawsuits from Forest Guardians and others forced a temporary halt to all cutting on Southwestern national forests.
Even during those dark days, however, Luis remained an optimist. And today, he can’t stop smiling about the collaboration in the woods that writer Peter Friederici reports on in this issue.
"I was at a meeting the other day where environmentalists were sitting at the same table with local Hispanic and tribal leaders, and everyone was throwing out ideas," Luis says. "There was a dynamic of joy and laughter that will last for quite a long time.
"I always thought it would come to this," he adds. "But I’m glad it happened in my lifetime."