In the heart of the New West, the sheep win one

by Ray Ring And Mary Frei

CHAMA VALLEY, N.M. - Even as this high and stormy valley goes the way of the changing West, its course remains eccentric, defined by cross-cultural grudges. Agricultural land is going fast as middle-class Anglos convert ranches to cabin subdivisions or resorts, but the Jicarilla Apaches are also buying up land to add to their reservation.

 

Taken together, the subdivisions, the new tribal acreage and the dude ranches make land scarce in a county that is only 30 percent privately owned anyway.

 

All this comes on top of a traditional culture of Hispanics who feel cheated because the original Mexican land grant was supposed to preserve the valley as a commons forever.

 

Shoot-outs, camp-ins and other confrontations down through the decades have tried to keep that dream alive. Sheep rancher Antonio Manzanares, born and raised in the valley, says, "We've had to fight for every damn thing."

 

It's been 11 years since Manzanares helped start the latest effort, the economic development corporation, Ganados del Valle (livestock of the valley); it's been six years since he and others in Ganados herded sheep onto a piece of the land grant that had become a state wildlife refuge. They used the state's grass for a few days. And they got national news coverage as they were evicted.

 

Determinedly, Ganados has grown into the valley's largest nongovernment employer, directly or indirectly supporting 100 families and several hundred people total. It has revived herds of churro sheep that had almost disappeared (HCN, 5/1/95). It also runs a wool-processing business, a general store that promotes local artisans and organic mutton, and Tierra Wools, a cooperative of spinners and weavers that markets expensive tapestries.

 

Yet the success has never seemed secure.

 

Nearly all the businesses are based on sheep, and sheep are based on grazing land. For the most part, Ganados still lacks that essential resource.

 

Without title to so much as an acre of pasture, Manzanares must haul his flock of 700 ewes around the valley and even into southern Colorado, wherever he can find pasture for lease. "It's always been tight," he says. Each passing day, the dream of owning land only seemed to carry a higher price tag and longer odds.

 

But Manzanares walked out of a Santa Fe courtroom four weeks ago, knowing that the dream was at last on the verge of becoming solid acreage. Drawing the nation's attention again, Ganados won a lawsuit settlement of $900,000, enough to bid for land against the subdividers and Jicarillas and resort developers.

 

To get in that position, the rural nonprofit had attacked the reputation of the Sierra Club Foundation - which describes itself as "the nation's premier public foundation supporting grassroots environmental causes' - and smeared it in the valley's red-brown mud.

 

A long battle

 

The case of Ganados del Valle vs. the Sierra Club Foundation resembles nothing so much as a bitter divorce.

 

Manzanares, 44, who left the valley to get a university education in psychology and teaching, and then came home to make a life and raise four kids, says, "We're fighting the environmentalists, who should be and have been our friends. It's getting harder to see that vision."

 

This particular fight stems from a new land grant that was supposed to remedy historic wrongs. The original Mexican land grants disintegrated in scams, claims and counterclaims once the United States took over the region. Hispanic bitterness climaxed in 1967, when activists led by Reies Lopez Tijerina staged a raid on the local county courthouse under the banner: Give us our land back.

 

Three years after that raid escalated into a shoot-out with police, the new land grant was conceived. Ray Graham III, a Firestone heir and long-time Sierra Club member, donated $100,000 to the Sierra Club Foundation. Graham was promised, he has said, that his donation would go toward buying land for a Hispanic co-op in the valley; there are documents that generally support his claim.

 

Twenty lambing seasons went by, during which time the co-op disbanded and some of its key people re-emerged as Ganados del Valle. Then came the publicity about Ganados herding its ewes and lambs onto the wildlife refuge. It got Graham to wondering where his money had gone, and why Ganados didn't have a home for its sheep.

 

Graham, a developer of cluster housing in Albuquerque, has been praised in the Albuquerque Journal for combining offices, condos and racquetball courts "in harmony with the environment." He's quoted describing sunshine as his "compelling force." But he turned against the Sierra Club Foundation with a vengeance, suing in federal court in San Francisco, claiming he'd been deceived and his donation mismanaged.

 

The ruling by a federal judge there two years ago should be noted by everybody considering making a donation to a nonprofit. U.S. District Court Judge Charles Legge dismissed the case, writing, "I don't see there is any authority (in law) that the charitable institution's promise to use the fund in a particular way creates a contract ... that would be enforceable."

 

Legge went on, "It's clear that the donor, once the gift has been given, doesn't have the right to enforce (any restrictions on) the gift, and doesn't have the right to get the money back..."

 

Sheep aren't deer

 

 

Graham isn't talking about it publicly now. He selected the Sierra Club Foundation as a conduit because he had friends there, and it didn't occur to him that the foundation might not follow through on his intent.

 

But the foundation had no record of buying land for community farming or ranching. The Sierra Club Foundation funnels money to the club proper, as well as to environmental projects sited as far away as Antarctica, Siberia and tropical rain forests. It produces books, pamphlets, newsletters and educational videos. It pays for litigation to protect endangered species such as the desert tortoise and to protect people from industrial pollution. It runs a nationwide Inner City Outings Program, which exposes urban kids, disabled and elderly people to nature. It administers a handful of nature preserves. Theoretically, it's separate from the Sierra Club, operating out of a different building, with a separate board of directors, but the policies of the two organizations mostly coincide.

 

In fact, it was created as the nonprofit sidekick of the Sierra Club after the Internal Revenue Service revoked the latter's tax-exempt status for lobbying a bit too heavily against dams in the Grand Canyon. The foundation was created to take in tax-deductible donations, while the club continued to collect non-tax-deductible dues from club members.

 

In general, the club and the foundation are oriented toward the urban, recreationist consumer of wild country. They are interested in the preservation of what is seen as pristine land. Ganados, of course, has a very different perspective.

 

Ganados shepherds say that going back generations, they've learned how to use the land without harming it. Groups like the Sierra Club and even The Nature Conservancy are cautious about grazing, concerned about the impacts on all sorts of animal and plant species in an ecosystem.

 

"They're corporate types who think they know better than we do," scoffs Maria Varela, the co-director of Ganados. "As a pastoral culture living on the land, (our grazing practices) have to be sustainable. We think of ourselves as practicing environmentalists."

 

"Sheep are not deer," counters Stephen Stevick, executive director of the foundation. "We're not here to subsidize grazing. We're here to fund conservation."


Lawsuit #2

 

The law is hardly ever cut-and-dried, and a second suit was pressed against the foundation by the New Mexico attorney general's office and Ganados. State prosecutors have authority to make sure donations are managed properly. And Ganados had legal standing because it claimed to be the type of group that Graham had wanted to help.

 

If the federal court in San Francisco had proven unfriendly to Ray Graham, judges pointed out a remedy could be found in other courts elsewhere. The New Mexico state court proved to be enemy territory for the foundation. All parties managed to be represented by high-powered attorneys, however, and everybody seemed to be a prominent Democrat.

 

The two camps hurled allegations at each other: The foundation was nothing more than a tea party for aristocratic white people. New Mexico officials were pressing the case merely to win political support from Hispanics. The state judge, Steve Herrera, was a partisan for Ganados.

 

State attorneys took statements from foundation and Sierra Club officials, past and present, and pried open the foundation's ledgers with court orders. The audit determined that funds had been improperly mingled, and several large donations that were supposed to go for conservation projects in New Mexico had not.

 

Graham's donation had been applied to buying land, but the land was under the Sierra Club's headquarters in San Francisco. A key problem for the foundation was that even interest on the donation had gone toward salaries and administration, not land in New Mexico - a clear violation of the law.

 

The wise-use movement reportedly offered to pay Ganados' legal fees, seeking an anti-environmentalist alliance. Ganados said no, but Manzanares warned, "We're being pushed to the right (politically)."

 

Attorney General Tom Udall, son of ex-Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, seemed to be betraying Sierra Club members and other environmentalists, who had helped him win office.

 

"Every time I've run I've had their endorsement," Udall said later. "It's not a pleasurable experience to be suing your friends. Many of these issues the Sierra Club pushes on a national or state level I have sympathy with, including their overall philosophy in terms of protecting the environment."

 

Settlement negotiations kept blowing up. Even when there was agreement on a dollar amount, Ganados and the Sierra Club Foundation argued over how the settlement documents would be worded. Another national nonprofit, The Trust for Public Land, tried for nine months to facilitate and then gave up. It was a "huge disappointment," says Ted Harrison, regional director for the trust, which had no other projects going in the the Chama Valley.

 

The Santa Fe trial, scheduled to begin Sept. 18, threatened to produce a whole new wave of bad publicity. Negotiations went right up to deadline. The day before trial was to begin, a settlement was finally reached. It reads like a surrender by the foundation: $900,000 to Ganados, roughly what the original donation would be worth today, if it had been managed as an investment. The payoff has almost no strings attached, except some wording about "the demonstration of environmentally sound grazing practices."

 

The foundation's brief press release concealed any gritted teeth: "We are delighted to announce ..." But the last paragraph of the settlement document doesn't sound so delighted: The foundation, all parties acknowledge, settled the claims only to avoid the cost of further litigation.

 

Rex Throckmorton, one of the defense attorneys in New Mexico who represented the foundation, explained simply, "It was a business decision."

 

Attorneys in the case estimate the foundation had already spent $2.5 million, only $1 million of which was covered by litigation insurance. This is a major blow; at the end of 1993, the most recent annual report made available, the foundation had $12.7 million in total assets.

 

An earlier settlement could have saved Sierra's foundation a lot of money. Offers the foundation rejected or that fell apart later began at $400,000, then escalated to $700,000, then $800,000, then $880,000.

 

Looking for land

 

 

Ganados won't walk away with $900,000. Its attorney, Gene Gallegos, who specializes in litigation against oil and gas companies, is charging $150,000, said to be one-third his normal rate. Another $40,000 goes for the costs of transcribing depositions and photocopying.

 

Ganados gets $710,000. It won't buy all that much in the valley these days.

 

With a dozen or so big ranches intact, two national forests and two state wildlife refuges spreading from about 8,000-feet elevation up to snow-hatted peaks, the valley still appears rustic. Sheep claim the right-of-way on roads within a stone's throw of the Rio Arriba County courthouse. Eighty-some percent of the locals are Hispanics, most of whom struggle to live close to the land.

 

But in the 25 years since the Firestone heir set out to help the Hispanics here, the valley has been discovered.

 

The biggest town, Chama, population just over 1,000, has a thriving industry: The narrow-gauge Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad hauls in 60,000 tourists a year, although early this century, the railroad hauled logs and sheep. Bed and breakfasts proliferate in modern Chama, but Mayor Tony Gonzales laughs and says no, you still can't buy a cappuccino in town. (By October, though, you could.) Even so, many outsiders want to own a piece of New Mexico.

 

Driving the dirt roads of his 6,300-acre Chama West subdivision, developer E.T. Reilly can see the valley's future. With 10-acre lots going for $4,500 an acre, the subdivision is two-thirds sold. Five homes are standing, seven more going up. Reilly, himself a transplant from Texas, points to different lots and describes the new owners: "This man was the White House artist during Reagan and Bush ... This man is a doctor from Texas ... This one over here is an engineer from Intel in Albuquerque."

 

The emerging neighborhood includes a retired insurance executive, a professor of criminal law, a school superintendent, a retired fire marshall, a builder - all from California. And a woman who's retiring as a major in the Air Force. "This gentleman's got two black belts in karate," Reilly says, motioning toward a cluster of trees.

 

"Californians call this easy country," he says, adding that it took him a while to figure out what they meant: "Easy to travel ... easy on the eyes ... easy to own."

 

Real estate agents say that more property sold in the area in 1994 than in the previous five years combined. The summer of 1995 appeared to be just as busy; new construction went nonstop.

 

"It's beautiful here. It is unspoiled in a lot of ways," muses Joe Piuma, a Chama resident for 26 years and real estate agent for the past two. "It's a zoo in Taos. It's a zoo in Santa Fe. People are looking for something less trendy."

 

Despite the growth, about one in seven electrical hookups are idle, suggesting that many people come part-time or are investing in land, says Damian Eturriaga, administrative assistant at the Northern Rio Arriba Electrical Cooperative. "Property prices are being inflated unrealistically," he says, "because of speculation purchases."

 

Some of the newcomers want to blend in. LeAnn King has just set up shop in the 135-year-old village of Los Ojos, almost next door to Ganados' headquarters. King has lived and worked overseas, in the Phillipines, Korea and Turkey. Antiques and artifacts from those countries adorn her gallery, which shares space with a small cafe.

 

"You need to be a part of the community," she says forcefully. "You need to understand the history of the area. When you're used to living all over the world, when you go to a new place you find out everything you can about the people - who they are and what they're about. I intend to make this my home the rest of my life."

 

Yet many of the newcomers avoid the traditional Hispanic villages, in favor of a few Anglo enclaves. And younger Hispanics, whose ancestors helped to settle the valley, continue to leave for outside employment. Ten years ago the local high school graduated 67 students. The 1995 senior class had 30.

 

Ganados, which started with a $1,500 grant and limped along for years on an annual budget of $20,000 and mostly volunteer effort, has invigorated Los Ojos. Tierra Wools and the general store, Pastores, operate out of renovated Territorial-style buildings. In an old adobe that's still called the Frontier Bar, tires are recycled and made into floor mats (about the only Ganados business that does not depend on sheep and grazing land). Today the annual budget for all the businesses is about $650,000.

 

Trying to keep families intact and on the land, Ganados loans out sheep and collects a low rate of annual interest: a lamb on every 10 ewes. The nonprofit and its members have about 1,000 sheep total. Many people have wanted to expand their individual herds, but growth was constrained by the lack of land - nobody owns more than 20 acres or so.

 

"It's demoralizing," says Manzanares, now co-director with Varela. "Kids see their parents struggling. The net effect is that we lose all the kids in this valley and it breaks up the families."

 

Symbolic ranching

 

 

Several of the large ranches that have changed hands never came on the market. They became the wildlife refuges. In one deal, The Nature Conservancy coordinated the sale of 20,000 acres to the state. Also, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has established a conservation easement on 7,200 acres.

 

A half dozen or so ranches, including nine miles of Chama River frontage, have been bought by outsiders from as far away as New York and Washington, who converted the ranches to members-only hunting and fishing clubs.

 

Even ranches that remain in the original lands drift from grazing. "Our cattle operation is symbolic now," says Jeb Binkley, whose family has ranched in the valley since 1914 and participated in several of the conservation transfers. "Recreation has become our main business' - hunters and anglers pay to stay in cabins on the Binkley ranch.

 

Additional competition for available land comes from the Jicarilla Apache tribe, whose 875,000-acre reservation extends into the valley. The tribe has its own story of survival and triumph. A little more than a hundred years ago, the Jicarillas, whose home was in northeast New Mexico, were shunted off to a reservation thought to be worthless. The harsh climate, combined with epidemics of T.B., influenza and trachoma, whittled the tribe down to about 500 people around the turn of the century.

 

Then oil and gas were discovered. Now the tribe has about 3,200 members and $1 billion in assets, including hotels in Florida and Jackson, Wyo., as well as overseas investments.

 

The tribe is concentrating on expansion into the valley, recently spending some $75 million on at least four ranches that total more than 100,000 acres. In one deal last March, the tribe outbid the state, which wanted to buy the Chama Land and Cattle Co. ranch and turn it into a park. The tribe says it will continue to run the ranch as a hunting resort, charging customers up to $7,000 for a chance at a trophy deer or elk or buffalo.

 

"They don't make land no more," tribal president Leonard Atole told High Country News last year (HCN, 5/16/94). "So while it's there, you better get some for the people. Land is the best investment you can make."

 

Until now, Ganados never had the money to buy significant acreage. Everything went into growing the businesses and keeping going year by year.

 

Ganados and the Hispanic community in general were also up against a strong psychological block. Manzanares says, "This is land-grant country (dating back to when the valley was part of Mexico). And some people don't feel we should have to buy our own land back."

 

Now prime land in bulk, if there's any available, sells for up to $1,000 an acre, and smaller parcels go for a higher per-acre price. The people in Ganados, as flush as they suddenly are, can afford maybe 700 acres of that kind of land. They can buy more acreage if the land isn't so prime. It will only be the beginning of security, maybe not even enough to fully support the sheep they have now.

 

Manzanares says, "I can't say how many acres we need."


Mary Frei lives near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Ray Ring writes in Bozeman, Montana.

 

 

 

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