Separating sense from nonsense in New Mexico's forests

  • Cartoon of gunman with the capitol for a hat and holding a potted tree

    Jim Day

Environmentalists in northern New Mexico have a chance to show their better side. Having brought things to a halt in the recent, unnecessary crisis over firewood on Carson National Forest (HCN, 12/25/95), they might now show they can start things that need to get started.

The crisis resulted from a lawsuit over the Mexican spotted owl, in the settlement of which environmentalists and the Forest Service behaved like a pair of squalling spouses. They were so consumed with shouting each other down that they injured others unlucky enough to be close to them - Hispanic villagers, who depend on the forest to heat their houses. The court decision imposing restrictions on firewood collection did not create the shortage of dead and down fuelwood in the Truchas area, but it intensified it and brought it to the front page.

The resulting mess makes losers out of all of us. We lose because gridlock between litigants and the Forest Service results in a loss of faith in management of any kind. These days, I am seeing more bandit tree-cutting than ever before in the Taos County forests I have roamed for 20 years. The random stumps and piles of slash testify to an attitude that "if the big shots can't get their act together, I'll just do what I need to do."

We also lose because this squabbling worsens the ethnic and cultural divisions in our fragmented society. Enviros have accused the Forest Service of willfully driving a wedge between them and rural Hispanic villagers. Two things are wrong with that idea. First, the Forest Service isn't up to the task, either by way of conspiratorial acumen or moral debasement. Second, the shrillest enviros drove the wedge on their own.

In two decades of writing and work on environmental issues, I've had plenty of occasion to observe repeated demonstrations of misplaced priorities and, at times, duplicity on the part of the Forest Service. But I have also had the privilege of working with outstanding people in the agency, people as decent and as dedicated to a healthy environment as any. Damning the whole outfit only pushes solutions farther out of reach.

So does the inability of some environmentalists to understand rural needs and values. When an activist says to reporters, "I get pretty tired of people shedding tears because they can't make money off public lands' (The New Mexican, 11/5/95), he's tipping his hand more than he knows. The article in which the comment appeared focused on a small mill operator, and the sense of the comment was that doing business on public lands entails risks. The statement may have sounded perfectly reasonable to a city dweller with a comfortable, white-collar job - which in fact is the situation of the activist.

But I suspect that a lot of people in northern New Mexico viewed his comments as arrogant and ignorant. Public land in northern New Mexico is not the same as public land in, say, Oregon. Over a fifth of the Carson and Santa Fe national forests was once part of extensive land grants conveyed to Hispanic settlers and ultimately confirmed by Congress and U.S. courts. Still more forest land was claimed as grants by Hispanics but not confirmed by the government, which repeatedly failed to protect the property rights of land-grant heirs. As a result, the suggestion that an Hispano from Abiqui£ has no more rights in the forest than any Joe from Hoboken understandably riles a lot of people. The further suggestion that the mill worker learn to live with "risk" is insulting. Anyone who has wrapped a chain on a log or operated heavy machinery for a living knows a thing or two about risk. There are risks to one's health - hurt your back and who takes care of business? There are risks of breakdown, bad weather and narrow financial margins. And then there's the risk of legal - not ecological - decisions putting your livelihood on hold.

Should that risk be acceptable for someone who already shoulders a heavy load? Shall we just look away when our malfunctioning "system" hurts a hard-working neighbor?

Before leaving the subject of wedges, let's not forget that fuelwood and owls are not the only issue on which environmentalists and rural Hispanos have clashed. People in northern New Mexico remember the bumper-sticker imbecility of "Cattle Free in "93." Many a village rancher is also aware of efforts by enviros to block reissuance of grazing permits for a fair number of small operators. As a result, when people in the north read in the newspaper that, according to those same activists, the real enemies of rural people are "multinational corporations' and they are "tragically misled" for being suspicious of environmentalism, they - and all the rest of us - have to wonder who is most misled, or most misleading.

Let's put this "multinational" nonsense to rest. No sane person can claim that Duke City Lumber, for decades the chief consumer of old-growth ponderosa in northern New Mexico, behaved like an eco-bunny when it was locally owned.

The waste and hurt of the fix we are in is all the greater when we realize that fuelwood cutters and small-contract loggers are among the best tools available for ecological management of our forests. Nearly everyone agrees that the forests need thinning. We need to leave the remaining big, old, ponderosa yellow-bellies alone. We need to thin the dog-hair pines and cautiously reintroduce fire. We need to create more small forest openings and "edges' in order to promote species diversity. In the course of doing these things, plenty of fuelwood, latillas, vigas and posts will become available throughout northern New Mexico. And our forests will become healthier.

Let's get started on needed work; let's encourage combatants on both sides to declare a truce. Let's convene cooler heads to draw up plans for restoring forest health and generating needed products along the way. And if we do those things, what will happen? When people get their fuelwood from thinning, we will have more standing snags in other parts of the forest, where owls might nest. And by opening tree canopies, we will have more feed and habitat on the forest floor for the rodents that owls like to hunt.

It's not us or them. In terms of both problem and solution, it's just us.

William deBuys, who lives in Santa Fe, is the author of Enchantment and Exploitation and River of Traps.

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