Environmentalists say agency uses them as scapegoats

  • Hispanic activist Ike De Vargas hangs an enviro effigy in Santa Fe

    Clyde Mueller

For hundreds of years, rural Hispanics have gathered firewood from the forests of northern New Mexico. After all, it was once their land, given to them in Spanish land grants as far back as the late 17th century. Even after the Forest Service took control of the land grants in the early 1900s, local families continued to heat their homes with wood collected in the forest.

But last September, Carson National Forest officials told the locals they would face new rules when they collected firewood. They said a lawsuit brought by environmentalists to protect the threatened Mexican spotted owl had forced a halt to logging and restricted firewood gathering, even though owls had only been found in one remote area.

Shortly after the announcement, angry Hispanic residents joined timber and mining owners and employees in Santa Fe, where they burned an effigy of Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians and John Talberth of the Forest Conservation Council. The two men had been plaintiffs in the lawsuit to protect owls.

"Environmentalists haven't wanted to take the blame for their actions," says Max Cordova, leader of the 300 families of the Truchas Land Grant. "Until they recognize that, how can we deal with them?"

Twenty-two rural families will run out of wood within a month, says Cordova's son David, and later this winter he expects about 150 local families to need wood.

The drama has attracted national media, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CBS, NBC and talk radio. The stories usually pit the poor families and their shrinking woodpiles against white, urban environmentalists more concerned about a bird than about people.

But environmentalists say the press has the story wrong. To change the public's perception, they have been running full-page newspaper ads and delivering firewood to needy families.

The truth, environmentalists say, is that the Forest Service has allowed unrestricted firewood collection to degrade the Carson National Forest; now the agency has pinned the blame on the spotted owl and environmentalists.

"Even if the owl injunction did not come down we'd still have a firewood crisis in (the town of) Truchas," Hitt says. The ground there is picked clean, he says, and "looks like a third-world forest." He argues that the Forest Service could have avoided the firewood controversy by aggressively pursuing energy conservation and instituting a more restrictive firewood program.

"As long as it takes nine cords to heat a drafty little adobe in New Mexico, we're going to have a problem."

Environmentalists say that a book published in 1985 shows that the forest's firewood program hasn't been sustainable for years. In Enchantment and Exploitation, William deBuys writes that in 1977, more than 1,700 cords of green piûon and juniper firewood were cut from a district in the Carson National Forest. But biologically, the district could provide only 250 cords a year sustainably.

It's overcutting that has deteriorated wildlife habitat on the Carson National Forest, says Hitt. He points to a New Mexico Game and Fish Department study that says the forest has the lowest density of standing dead trees, or snags, in the region. The agency told the Forest Service it should retain three snags per acre. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently told the Forest Service it should ban firewood collectors from cutting snags.

Even if the owl isn't found in the forest, snags are still crucial for other forest species who use them for nesting, says Jennifer Fowler-Propst, New Mexico supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This year, the Carson National Forest expects about 4,700 households to collect a total of 20,000 cords. Carson Forest staffers say that still leaves an average of almost 300,000 cords from logging slash and trees that die naturally. Critics like Hitt say the forest is being hit harder than the numbers show.

But because the Carson National Forest encompasses many Spanish land grants, it can't be managed as other forests are, says Gary Schiff, a community affairs officer who oversees the Carson Forest's firewood program. Rural Hispanics rely on the forest for basic needs like building materials and heat, he points out.

Schiff admits shortages exist in certain areas, but he says the Fish and Wildlife Service found the forest's firewood program to be sustainable. He blames the court-ordered regulations for exacerbating them.

Local Hispanics say the new firewood restrictions are another attempt by outsiders to tell them how they can use their ancestral lands. Max Cordova says he has long sought a voice in decisions affecting the forest, and while "we used to have to contend with one boss ... ow we have two."

Dustin Solberg, HCN intern