The original Hispano settlers struggled fiercely to eke out an existence in the 7,000-foot-high Taos Valley, dealing with wild swings in temperature and a scarcity of water. To promote settlement, beginning in the late 1700s, the Spanish crown granted large tracts of land to individuals, groups or towns in what became New Mexico. After the Mexicans threw out the Spanish rulers, the Mexican government issued more land grants. Many were “community” grants that included small private parcels for homesites as well as large areas held in common and used for grazing livestock or gathering firewood and building materials.

U.S. troops invaded Mexico in 1846, aiming to take control of California and the Southwest, and Mexico surrendered with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Though the treaty put much of Mexico’s Northern Territory (including New Mexico) into U.S. hands, it promised that hundreds of land grants and other Hispano holdings would be respected if their owners could prove the validity of their claims to the U.S. government.

It’s hard to say exactly how much land belonged to Hispano settlers and heirs; Congress eventually acknowledged almost 6 million acres of various land grants in New Mexico. But the process was sketchy at best. The U.S. government created the office of the Surveyor General, and then the Court of Private Land Claims, to confirm grants, but both were underfunded and plagued by corruption. Probably the worst example was Henry Atkinson, surveyor general from 1876 to 1884, who tried unsuccessfully to claim the 380,000-acre Anton Chico Land Grant, southeast of Santa Fe, for his own cattle corporation.

In the second half of the 19th century, the millions of acres of communal land on grants held by poor, Spanish-speaking villagers became easy targets for Anglo attorneys and speculators who used courtroom acrobatics and bribery to take over the land. Land-grant heirs were largely oblivious, as a good portion of the grants ended up in the hands of Anglo ranchers and logging companies. Common lands were often seized by the U.S. government as “public domain” and later absorbed by the fledgling national forest system. The Forest Service eventually enacted regulations and limits on use that irked many grant heirs who’d relied on the forests for generations.

When the heirs began to realize that they’d lost the land, they had little recourse. Records during the territorial period are spotty and imprecise, and the countless land sales and lawsuits amount to a rat’s nest of unscrupulousness. “It’s literally lost to history,” says David Correia, a land-grant scholar and associate professor at the University of New Mexico. “It’s a mess that we’ll never be able to unravel, so it becomes this flashpoint.”

The movement to assert Hispano rights to the old land grants took off in the 1960s. Texas-born, ex-evangelical preacher Reies López Tijerina blew into New Mexico’s rural villages, trumpeting about past injustices. He was a charismatic leader, and his message of loss and dispossession resonated with many poverty-stricken Hispanos. He organized grassroots opposition to state and federal authorities, called the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (the Federal Land Grant Alliance), which quickly gained thousands of members. There were increasing conflicts between Hispano farmers and ranchers and the Forest Service over grazing, water and firewood rights on public land that once belonged to grant heirs, including episodes of arson and fence-cutting. The climax came in June 1967, when three carloads of armed land-grant activists stormed the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in tiny Tierra Amarilla, west of Taos. They tried to place the county’s district attorney, who sought to prosecute Alianza members, under citizens’ arrest. Two lawmen were wounded by gunshots, another was severely beaten, and the raiders escaped into the woods. A sympathetic jury found Tijerina not guilty of charges related to the courthouse raid, but he served two years in prison on other charges involving an attempt to take back national forest land. The resulting international attention put a spotlight on the land-grant movement.

Since then, the movement has evolved from a radicalized revolt to an institutionalized part of government. Juan Sanchez is president of the Chilili Land Grant Board, which manages 8,000 acres of common lands in the Manzano Mountains southeast of Albuquerque. He is also chairman of the New Mexico Land Grant Council, an agency of state government created in 2009 to help land-grant boards with planning and organization. In the last 40 years, Sanchez says, policy-makers have become more educated about past wrongs, and activists no longer use guns to seek justice. “We can’t do that no more,” Sanchez says. “There’s always confrontations in the land-grant movement, but those battles are taking place in court. It’s a different level than all the shooting.”

Activists pushed the Legislature to pass several laws in the last decade governing communal land-grant boards. There are now 33 registered with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office. The parcels they control range in size from as little as 15 acres to tens of thousands and are still used by heirs for grazing, firewood-gathering and hunting. The five-member boards are elected by heirs interested in using the common lands who can trace their heritage back to the original settlers. Usually, heirs must register with the board and pay minimal dues or fees for using the land. (Just determining the number of “heirs” can be impossible. I’m a great example: I grew up in Colorado; both of my parents are from South Dakota. But a few distant relatives on my mother’s side were New Mexican Hispanos, so I learned recently that I’m an heir to at least two grants near Albuquerque, and probably more.)

As government units similar to municipalities, land-grant boards are eligible for state and federal funds to manage common lands within the grant. Boards are steering taxpayer money to projects like riparian restoration and forest thinning. A land-grant legislative committee created in 2003 sponsors bills and doles out state funds to the boards. A program at the University of New Mexico focuses on archival research to retrace the boundaries of traditional common lands. The boards and heirs hope to use these maps to determine lost land and petition for its return.

In 2008, for example, 32 acres of former common lands that somehow wound up in state hands decades ago were returned to the Abiquiu Land Grant. Gilbert Ferran of the New Mexico Land Grant Consejo, which lobbies the Legislature on behalf of land grants, says the Abiquiu grant has about 75 member heirs who use its several thousand acres for grazing, timber and firewood harvesting, and hunting.

Nonprofits are also teaming up with land-grant boards to promote economic development. The Albuquerque-based Center of Southwest Culture is using farming, housing and eco-tourism cooperatives to revitalize rural, land-based Hispano villages on the Nuestra Señora del Rosario, San Fernando y Santiago del Rio de las Truchas Land Grant. Those heirs share thousands of acres of common land administered by the grant board, and small cooperatives — each composed of a few families — are allowed to use the land for a minimal fee to grow organic crops or guide trips into the neighboring Pecos Wilderness.

“Land grants are historically collective organizations, cooperative organizations, and they operate on the principle of community-based decision making,” says Arturo Sandoval, who heads the Center of Southwest Culture. “Co-ops are just a modern expression of a cultural phenomenon that’s been in place in New Mexico, through land grants and acequias (communal irrigation ditches), for the last 400 years.”