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Know the West

New Mexico loggers get 'police power'

Legislature won't wait for feds to clean up flammable forests


SANTA FE, N.M. - In fractious New Mexico, getting widespread agreement in what politically resembles an American version of the Balkans is usually pretty difficult. But this year, legislators of all political and cultural stripes leaped on the anti-wildfire bandwagon and passed a new law that gives counties "police power" to cut down trees in national forests.

Even Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, known for his Libertarian-leaning, marijuana-legalizing, anti-drug-war crusade, joined in, signing the law to "send a message to Washington." Never mind that it might be illegal, or at least constitutionally suspect. Or that the state's attorney general warned against approving it.

The new law declares an emergency in the national forests and gives county commissioners the authority to "take actions necessary for clearing and thinning undergrowth and for removing and logging fire-damaged trees."

Environmentalists were left aghast. "It's clearly unconstitutional, unecological and plays into the worst aspects of the wise-use movement," said Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, now a member of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Another group, the Forest Guardians, immediately threatened a lawsuit to stop the law from being implemented. "It's an act of civil war," said Sam Hitt, the longtime, soon-to-retire, director of the group. "It's putting public lands at risk. We will fight this robustly."

Memories of fire

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the logging bill was who wrote it: Sen. Manny Aragon, a gruff, colorful Albuquerque Democrat most often described as a liberal. In last year's campaigns, Republicans sent out a photo of a cigarette-puffing Aragon in campaign mailings, demonizing him as a sort of Hispanic political boss poster boy. This year, in another New Mexico political twist, renegade Democrats and their willing Republican cohorts in the Legislature unceremoniously toppled Aragon from the top Senate leadership post he'd held since 1988.

Politics played a part in the timber bill, but legislators were apparently more preoccupied with a memory - images of burned homes in Los Alamos, torched in last year's Cerro Grande fire that began as a controlled burn by the National Park Service. As dry conditions persisted, so did New Mexico's worst fire season in decades (HCN, 6/5/00: More trouble waits in the wings).

Federal agencies have "ignored" the pleas of locals to thin fire-prone forests, said Aragon, so now "it's New Mexico's responsibility. Hopefully, we can reach a reasonable accommodation."

Forest Service lawyers are doing some research before deciding what to do about the new law, says spokesman Carl Olguin in Albuquerque. Around New Mexico, the agency has been on the front lines of the county supremacy movement, most notably in remote Catron County (HCN, 6/24/96: Catron County's politics heat up as its land goes bankrupt).

Olguin says a flood of federal money should help the agency fix its flammable forests this summer. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have in excess of $60 million to do "fuels reduction" in New Mexico, he says, and will hire 400 additional people to thin forests.

While critics say it's not nearly enough money given the massive scope of the task, it may keep counties out of trouble, since many New Mexico loggers will be working for the federal government.

Hitt says he worries that President Bush, who has already announced budget-cutting intentions, will "rein in the Forest Service, and in a year or two, this money will disappear." Then, he says, New Mexico counties might actually launch logging offensives on the public lands.

The author writes in Socorro and Albuquerque, N.M.

You can contact ...

  • Manny Aragon with the New Mexico State Legislature, [email protected]; 505/877-7384 or 505/877-8447; Drawer Z, Albuquerque, NM 87103;
  • Sam Hitt with Forest Guardians, 505/988-9126, ext. 154.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Paul Krza