Locals rally against logging

  • Chama Valley residents Manny Trujillo and Steve Polaco

    Deborah Begel
  • Jim Hamm

    Deborah Begel

Northern New Mexico's Chama Valley is the last place to expect a battle over a logging operation. The valley is full of people who for generations have harvested the resources of the land.

But in July, that started changing when hundreds of "No Trespassing" signs went up on the thickly forested mountains that are part of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant. The land grant is in private hands, but it has never been developed, and local people have fished, hunted and camped there for many years.

Steve Polaco lives at the base of the mountains, beside the Rio Brazos, where a headgate diverts water from the river into three ditches ranchers use to irrigate hay crops in the area. He was shocked to see signs posted where earlier in the summer, he and his 8-year-old daughter, Tessa, had spent a pleasant day riding horses up the mountain near the old stagecoach road to Taos.

Polaco and other neighbors began to investigate. They learned that logging was about to begin and found that a two-lane road had already been cut and graded. It was not the usual narrow logging road that gets reseeded after logging, but something people started calling "the freeway." Locals speculated it would be easy to begin upscale development once this and other roads were in and logging was completed. Unlike most logging roads, they noted, these had even been given names, like Camino de la Sierra.

Locals demanded a meeting with the loggers, and on Aug. 10, 90 people met with landowners represented by Los Brazos Project Limited Liability Co. and loggers, whose company, Trees Are Us, is based in nearby Chama.

Residents learned that New Mexico's Forestry Division had already issued permits to log 3,200 acres. One permit required leaving a mere six seed trees per acre; others required only a few more. Permits for another 1,000 acres have been applied for since then.

Jim Mundy, chief organizer of the operation, is both a real estate agent and one of the largest landowners in the valley. Neither he nor the loggers would estimate how many board-feet they intended to harvest. They would only say they planned to thin the forest to lower the risk of a catastrophic fire and take out diseased trees. Mundy said this should be done to 60,000 acres, or roughly half the watershed.

Nor would Mundy say what kind of development might follow the logging. He did say publicly that he would like to build houses if a ski area - once planned and later defeated by local opposition - were to open.

Residents worried that such large-scale logging would lead to erosion. Silt, flowing down the steep slopes, would likely run into the Rio Brazos and then into their ditches, threatening the quality of both drinking and irrigation water.

In Rio Arriba County, farmers pressed officials to get involved. Their concerns about erosion paralleled those of farmers in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, where a mountain tract is being logged by a private owner (HCN, 6/9/97).

Finally, county officials called a meeting Sept. 24, at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse, the site of a famous land-grant shoot-out in 1967. More than 100 people came, the majority of them opposed to the logging plan.

They bombarded the Trees Are Us operator, Jim Hamm, with questions.

"How much lumber (do you intend to cut)?" asked attorney Grove Burnett of Taos.

"About 1.75 million board-feet," Hamm said. It was the first time a spokesperson for the project had given an actual figure.

"On the Carson (National Forest)," said Burnett, "they only cut about 1.5 million board-feet on 3,000 to 5,000 acres ... That's a major timber sale ... so how can you contend that this is not a commercial operation?"

A few minutes later, Hamm answered: "I agree it's a major timber sale," he said.

There was some discussion about the fact that the county is zoned for agriculture. Then Hamm asked Burnett, "Are you telling me timber (harvesting) isn't agriculture?"

"As it was defined in the (county zoning) regulations, it's not," Burnett said.

The next day, Polaco and several members of the steering committee presented the three-member county commission with a petition against the logging. It contained 428 signatures.

That rallied the commissioners, whose chairman, Alfredo Montoya, told the planning director to meet with the county lawyer to draw up an ordinance regulating logging on private land that would ensure good water quality to ranchers and the community downstream.

Six days later, the county's land-use planner, Gilbert Chavez, sent a letter to Trees Are Us ordering the company to stop logging. He said the project was a "commercial logging operation," and that the "burden of proof in addressing (environmental) concerns ... to alleviate the negative impacts is the responsibility of the developer." He added that water and terrain management plans might be needed before the planners would recommend approval.

"It's private property," protested the attorney for Trees Are Us, Marcia Lander of Albuquerque.

Chavez, however, has reined in developers before. When he worked in the county planning office in Santa Fe, Chavez studied the effects of gold mining in several Western states and then helped write a stringent ordinance on hard-rock mining. He said he sees the goal of his job as "protection of the public."

As the pro bono attorney for the anti-logging group, Grove Burnett is likely to help Chavez write a new logging ordinance for the county.

"There's a clarity and a unanimity in this community on this issue," he said. "(People know) what needs to be done to protect the watershed."

At the same time, he warned of rough waters ahead. "(The logging operation is) a nightmare," he said. "This is only the tip of the iceberg. ... Mundy said he could get 40 million board-feet off 60,000 acres ... so we're talking big numbers and big money."

Deborah Begel writes in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico.

You can ...

Contact Steve Polaco at 505/588-7758, or Amarante Casias at 505/588-7121. They are president and secretary respectively of Los Guardiantes de las Aguas de la Tierra Amarilla (The Guardians of the Waters of Tierra Amarilla).

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