Hikers stumble into an old dispute

Land-grant heirs say until their land is returned, the Continental Divide Trail won't go through

  • Continental Divide in Rio Arriba County

    Diane Sylvain
  • Rio Arriba County Commissioner Moises Morales with mural

    Geof Koss photo
  • Billboard outside Tierra Amarilla reads "Tierra o Muerte"

    Geof Koss photo

At first, the dream may have seemed simple, if a bit grandiose: Stretch a trail from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide, the spine that sends rivers either to the Pacific or the Atlantic oceans.

In the late 1960s, a group of avid hikers and the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation began scouting a path for the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Heading north from New Mexico's Animas Mountains, the trail would thread through the rugged Aldo Leopold Wilderness and wind high above treeline in the San Juans and the Colorado Rockies. In Wyoming, it would crest the Wind River Range and climb through Yellowstone National Park. From there, it would push north through Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park.

The trail would offer hikers breathtaking vistas, not to mention some of the most challenging terrain in the country. Organizers hoped to complete the project by 2008, the 30th anniversary of its designation by Congress as a National Scenic Trail.

But the path from dream to reality is often littered with stumbling blocks, and the Continental Divide Trail is no exception. Sections of the trail have fallen into place. A few hardy hikers have pieced the long walk together.

In spots, however, trail builders have hit resistance from locals, who worry the trail will bring environmentalists - and more restrictions on public lands. Within the hiking community, there have been rancorous debates about allowing corporations to underwrite the trail, and whether to allow mountain bikes. Organizers' toughest hurdle so far, however, may be in northern New Mexico, where the trail has run head-on into history.

A cultural quagmire

The dispute has its origins in the 18th century, when Spain, and later Mexico, issued land grants to Hispanic settlers. Under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. government agreed to honor all Spanish and Mexican land grants, and allow settlers to stay put.

But things didn't work out that way. New Mexico's history books are full of elaborate schemes used by Anglo speculators and lawyers, known as "black vultures," to wrest land from uneducated, Spanish-speaking farmers. Millions of acres of land originally granted to Hispanic settlers found its way into the hands of Anglos and the U.S. government.

The federal government now owns more than half of Rio Arriba County's nearly 4 million acres, including the Carson National Forest, and a chunk of the Continental Divide. Some descendants of the original Spanish settlers say the government should give the land back.

"It's our land, it's still our land," says Rio Arriba County Commissioner Moises Morales as he pokes under the dashboard of an old school bus at his auto repair shop in Tierra Amarilla. "They want to take what little we have left and make it into a big playground for the rich."

Until the dispute is resolved, he says, the Continental Divide Trail will not go through. "If we have to use violence, we'll do it," he says. "We have nothing to lose."

The Forest Service, for one, seems to take the threat seriously. In 1967, Morales was part of an armed group of land-grant activists that descended on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse to free comrades who had been arrested on weapons charges the previous weekend. A wild shootout ensued, wounding several law-enforcement officials. The activists fled into the nearby hills as New Mexico state police initiated the largest manhunt in the state's history.

The raid attracted national attention over the next several days as the raiders were slowly flushed out. Before the trial began, a key prosecution witness was found beaten to death in his car.

Morales served six months in prison for his role in the raid. An elaborate mural depicting the events of the day graces an outside wall of his shop.

Bitterness over lost land still abounds in Rio Arriba County, where unemployment is 11 percent, more than twice the national average. On the Carson, trailhead signs are vandalized and rangers warn campers not to leave their cars unattended overnight. In the past decade, Forest Service employees have been shot at and government vehicles and buildings have been burned.

Carson forest officials are proceeding with the trail slowly, according to Bill Westbury, who now works at the Carson's Taos Ranger Station, but convincing locals to buy in will be a chore. "Basically, the Forest Service is always the bad guy, no matter what we do," he says. "It's just part of the job. It doesn't take much to tick people off around here."

Hikers split

While the Forest Service is stepping gingerly, some trail advocates are moving ahead.

"I don't recognize it as a conflict," says Jim Wolf, a longtime trail proponent and director of the Baltimore, Md.-based Continental Divide Trail Society. "I understand that from a historical perspective, the legality of land-grant status has never been accepted by the local people. But the reality on the ground is that it's a national forest, and I'm not going to worry about it."

Wolf publishes a trail guide showing a route through the Carson. The guide angers Carson officials and other hikers, who say it will only make relations with locals worse.

"Anyone who is concerned about their quality of life has legitimate concerns," says Bruce Ward, who, along with his wife, Paula, runs the rival Continental Divide Trail Alliance in Pine, Colo. "We have no desire or intent to move ahead without local support there."

The Wards have held several meetings in Rio Arriba County to muster support for the project. "In some parts of the country, it's looked on as a great source of pride," says Ward. "The fact that Moises (Morales) isn't jumping up and down about the trail doesn't mean a reasonable compromise can't be made."

But Morales has found a lever he thinks may finally get his issue national attention. He refuses to consider any compromise, saying that no trail will be cleared until some sort of settlement on land-grant claims is achieved.

"There's going to be a lot of broken windows if our land doesn't come back," he warns. "The shit's going to hit the fan. We want our land back, period."

There are signs of progress. Last year, New Mexico Sens. Pete Domenici, R, and Jeff Bingaman, D, directed Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, to prepare a report on land-grant claims. This year, the two senators plan to sponsor legislation that would require the U.S. Department of Justice to review the GAO study when it is complete.

Roberto Mondragon, a former lieutenant governor of New Mexico and a member of the New Mexico Land Grant Forum, a grassroots organization that meets frequently to discuss land-grant issues, says people are pleased with the attention the issue has been receiving in Washington.

"It's been very exciting to people who are land-grant heirs, because they feel it is the first action that has been taken to right the wrongs that have occurred," Mondragon says. "The wheels are in motion for a mechanism to be established so their cases can be heard."

The author is an assistant news editor for the Durango Herald.

This story was funded through a grant from the New Mexico Community Foundation.


  • Bill Westbury with the Carson National Forest Taos office, 505/758-6200, ext. 273;
  • Jim Wolf with the Continental Divide Trail Society, 410/235-9610; e-mail: [email protected];
  • Bruce Ward with the Continental Divide Trail Alliance, P.O. Box 628, Pine, CO 80470, 303/838-3760; e-mail: [email protected];
  • Roberto Mondragon with the New Mexico Land Grant Forum, 505/986-0799; e-mail: [email protected]

    Copyright © 2000 HCN and Geof Koss

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