385,000 years: That's the estimated collective age of old, live junipers illegally cut for firewood between July 2010 and November 2011 on Bureau of Land Management land in northern and central New Mexico. Hardest hit have been the surreally beautiful badlands west of the small town of Cuba, now stippled with freshly sawed tree stumps, some of which are hundreds of years old.
Thousands of locals -- mostly Navajos, Hispanics and Pueblo Indians, many of whom live in poverty -- use the region's piñon-juniper forests for cooking and heating, collecting dead trees with a permit. But green juniper is the firewood of choice in the region, and demand seems to have surged in recent years, perhaps due to economic hardships or rising propane prices. BLM officials have cracked down over the last year, hiring veterans to patrol the land, issuing citations, confiscating chainsaws, and opening a hotline to report illegal cutting. They're also trying to find ways to help locals lessen fuel needs through increased energy efficiency.
That has helped slow the killing, but the juniper poachers are creative and tenacious, says Rio Puerco Field Office Manager Tom Gow, and they have taken to doing their sawing at night to elude patrols. Still, he says, "We're going to catch them, it's just a matter of time."
Regional environmentalists, meanwhile, are pushing for stronger protections for the badlands. The Rio Puerco BLM Field Office's new draft of its resource management plan is now open to public comment.