'Zero-Cow' initiative splits Sierra Club

Are urban members ignoring rural range life?


CHAMISAL, N.M. - Debating the use of public lands in northern New Mexico is like driving its dirt roads in springtime. Mud splatters, wheels spin, and those who brave the mire run a good chance of getting stuck in the muck. Up one such dirt road, in the pinon and juniper forests of the Sangre de Cristo Range, Kay Matthews and Mark Schiller live in the mountain village of Chamisal.

In the 1960s and '70s, Matthews and Schiller fought for civil rights and protested the Vietnam War. Now they wield their pens on behalf of their neighbors - residents of small, predominantly Hispanic foothill communities. "It's all the same fight," says Schiller.

The two run La Jicarita, an eight-page monthly newspaper that chronicles water concerns, community events and politics in towns such as Penasco, Las Trampas and Embudo. Both consider themselves environmentalists, but Schiller is quick to add, "There's a whole part of the puzzle missing when urban environmentalists ignore rural communities."

That's exactly what they feel happened in 1996, when Sierra Club members approved a policy that advocated an end to commercial logging on public lands. In northern New Mexico's traditional communities, pinon pine is a winter staple for heat and cooking fuel.

"Decisions are made by people sitting in offices in San Francisco who cannot grant autonomy to their local members," said Matthews. In October 1999, Matthews and six others stood on the steps of the state capitol in Santa Fe and withdrew their membership from the Sierra Club.

Now Matthews and others are taking aim at a proposed Sierra Club policy that would call for an end to all commercial grazing on public lands. Just up the road from Matthews and Schiller, the Hispanic residents of Penasco have grazed small herds of cattle on the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for generations.

"These policies are affecting some of the most disenfranchised people in the community," says Matthews. "How dare they disenfranchise them again?"

Zero cud?

Weighing in at over 600,000 members, the Sierra Club is an environmental heavyweight whose endorsements carry considerable clout. The Sierra Club regularly juggles hard-line policy positions with dissension in its ranks, as with the call to drain Lake Powell (HCN, 10/13/97: Sierra Club moves to fortify its 'drain Lake Powell' campaign), the "zero cut" policy (HCN, 5/27/96: Sierra Club zeroes in on logging), and a failed initiative to limit immigration (HCN, 5/11/98: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses).

Wise-use groups are alert to the Sierra Club's positions. "We take these sorts of things very seriously," says George Landrith, executive director of Frontiers of Freedom.

To bring "zero cud" to vote, supporters collected the requisite 1,300 member signatures at REI stores, trailheads and Sierra Club meetings. They focused on urban areas such as New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Caleb Kleppner, a Sierra Club member from San Francisco who circulated the petition, considers the issue a "no-brainer" for members. "People can see what the cows are doing to the land," he says.

Zero-grazing advocates say public-lands ranching damages riparian areas, costs taxpayers needless expense in subsidies, and diverts precious water to raise feed crops such as alfalfa.

"Cattle have overstayed their welcome," says David Orr, who was also instrumental in the zero-cut campaign and is now field director for the Glen Canyon Action Network, a group that advocates draining Lake Powell. "Public lands should not be in place for private profit-making," he says, "especially at the expense of the environment."

Orr says he recognizes the concerns of ranchers currently dependent on public lands. "I'm sympathetic to where they're coming from," he says, "but ranchers are part of a culture that's facing change, whether they're ready for it or not."

Some members of the Santa Fe Group of the Sierra Club, however, think urban enviros are ignoring rural reality. "It's not all black and white," says Courtney White, long-time Sierra Club member and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, an organization that espouses sustainable ranching techniques.

Barbara Johnson, Sierra Club member and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, agrees. "This kind of thing just polarizes people." She believes a no-grazing stance will make it "more difficult for the Sierra Club to work with people who are on the ground."

Out on the range

While public-lands ranchers today are often typecast as wealthy hobby cowboys, many in New Mexico fit a different profile. "These aren't Rolex ranchers," says Steve Miranda of the Camino Real Ranger District in the Carson National Forest.

Andie Sanchez grazes 14 head of cattle in the mountain meadows near Penasco. He works full time doing maintenance for the school system; his small herd doesn't provide much of an income, he says, but it's enough to keep his family going. To Sanchez, public-lands ranching makes possible "our culture, our livelihood, our future."

Sanchez's small herd is typical among the 16 members of the Santa Barbara Grazing Association, of which Sanchez is president. In the Santa Fe National Forest, 76 percent of the permittees graze less than 50 head. Courtney White says, "To lump all these guys together is patently unfair."

Adding to the complexity is the fact that many of the public lands in northern New Mexico were once land grants, deeded to Hispanic settlers by Spain and Mexico. "When these were land grants, we had a right to be there," says Virgil Trujillo, who grazes his cattle on public lands near Abiquiu, N.M. "We didn't choose for land grants to become public lands."

In northern New Mexico, says Trujillo, grazing permits are "heirlooms" passed from generation to generation. "There are many good examples of good stewardship," he says. "Why can't we sit down, talk about it, and get everyone's energy focused on the environmental situation?"

Such arguments have not been lost on the Sierra Club. Last year, the Environmental Justice Committee of the Sierra Club asked the Santa Fe Group to take a closer look at ranching in northern New Mexico. They called upon anthropologist Ernie Atencio, who wrote Of Land and Culture: Environmental Justice and Public Lands Ranching in Northern New Mexico in response. The 50-page report concludes that "a zero-grazing policy would have an impact on a predominantly poor, Hispano population as negative as any discriminatory environmental policy that threatens the health and welfare of disenfranchised populations of people of color in any other context."

Cliff Larson, Santa Fe Group Conservation chair, hopes the report will encourage "a more thoughtful approach" and forestall "knee-jerk votes" from urban voters unfamiliar with grazing issues.

Sierra Club members will vote on the zero-grazing initiative in April.

Kirsten Bovee is an HCN intern.

You can contact ...

  • Courtney White, The Quivira Coalition, for copies of Of Land and Culture, 505/820-2544;
  • Caleb Kleppner, Sierra Club member, 510/841-6761, www.rangebiome.org;
  • Evie Ebzery, Frontiers of Freedom, 307/234-5333.
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