Green hate in the land of enchantment

  • Sam Hitt, R, comes face to face with millworker in firewood fracas

    Clyde Mueller

A hate movement has grown up in northern New Mexico, fueled by decades of Forest Service mismanagement and sensational media coverage (HCN, 12/25/95). It has fostered an unusual alliance across racial barriers to oppose conservation on federal lands. The political alignment became visible more than a year ago during a Christmas candlelight demonstration organized by Hispano loggers and ranchers to protest the Endangered Species Act. As a procession of over 300 people made its way along Santa Fe's ancient streets, at least half of those holding candles were cowboys from southern New Mexico.

That snowy night's "wise-use" demonstration transcended long-standing racial animosities. More recently, the solidly Democratic Hispano northern part of the state joined the white Republican south to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over efforts to protect the Mexican spotted owl.

Northern New Mexico is one of the poorest areas in the nation, a region where a legacy of exploitation is as much a part of the landscape as green chili and fiery red sunsets. More than a million acres of the Carson and Santa Fe national forests were once communal lands granted by Spanish and Mexican authorities to Hispano settlers. The loss of these lands to unscrupulous 19th-century American and British land speculators still engenders resentment that occasionally overflows into violence. Back in 1967, a gun battle erupted when a band of land-grant activists stormed the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, demanding land guaranteed their ancestors at the end of the Mexican-American war.

A member of that raiding party is now a Rio Arriba County commissioner; today he whips up crowds with an anti-environmental message.

I've felt the message's sting. A month before the candlelight vigil, fellow conservationist John Talberth and I were hung in effigy outside our offices by a crowd of Hispano loggers, mining company executives and big ranchers. They were protesting a court injunction halting big-tree logging to protect the threatened Mexican spotted owl and potential grazing restrictions. A string of death threats, menacing packages on front porches and continuing harassment gave credence to promises of real violence if environmental restrictions continued.

I think the wise-users were drawn to the controversy by lazy media coverage that exploited the racial aspects of the conflict. Articles in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on NBC and CBS sensationalized a colorless story of Forest Service mismanagement, attributing a growing firewood crisis to "insensitive elitists."

The distortion became complete with reports of a ban on firewood cutting, a ban whose victims were low-income Hispanos and whose perpetrators were "insensitive elitist" environmentalists. But the "ban" never existed.

Firewood gathering has been problematic for at least 20 years, long before the owl became an issue. The forests of northern New Mexico have been degraded by a failure to implement sustainable firewood plans that close roads in sensitive areas, coupled with a more general failure to reduce galloping demand for home heating fuel through solar improvements and weatherization.

The Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, for example, has a huge, unregulated firewood program. The result: Snag densities are far below forest plan guidelines, and surveys show that cavity-nesting bird populations on the Carson are in steady decline. Following lengthy negotiations to resolve the spotted owl dispute, environmental plaintiffs and the Forest Service (including officials from the Carson) agreed on new guidelines similar to past guidelines that were never enforced. These reasonable measures included protecting snags and downed logs in the owl's critical habitat and in riparian zones.

Restrictions are not welcome in mountain communities like Truchas where, at an altitude of 8,000 feet, the typical household burns nine cords a winter and easy-to-gather firewood supplies are dwindling. In the mid-1970s, nearby piûon woodlands were cut at seven times the sustainable rate, resulting in a shift to higher elevation forests; now many of these forests are picked clean of deadfall. Villagers have banded together to seek green-tree thinning permits from the Forest Service but, despite plenty of fire-suppressed, overgrazed forest in need of thinning, Carson officials often fail to meet demand for local use. In Truchas last year, 400 firewood permits were requested, but only 140 were issued. So long before the owl became federally protected, wood was growing scarce and the forest was in bad shape.

Another victim of the growing climate of fear was the fragile alliance between La Madera Forest Products Association, a rural Hispano logging cooperative, and Forest Guardians, a Southwest conservation group, to promote sustainable enterprises in the small community of Vallecitos. For 26 years, the Duke City logging company, a division of the giant multinational Hanson PLC based in London, logged big ponderosa pines from the surrounding Vallecitos sustained-yield unit. It was a classic case of exploitation by distant corporations that have little concern for sustainability and community. In 1995, with less than 5 percent of the big trees left, the company pulled out, blaming environmentalists and the spotted owl for shortages of timber. The community is now poorer than when commercial logging began.

But Hispano activist Luis Torres remained hopeful, developing a plan, under contract with the Forest Service, to craft high-value Southwestern architectural details like carved spiral beams. The occupation could replace old-growth logging. Under his plan, logging levels would be slashed in half but twice as many jobs would be created. Since only small trees would be logged, the enterprise would be sustainable. However, an investment of $400,000 in new equipment was required, which is about what the federal government loses on old-growth logging operations in the area.

To start the project, and demonstrate our commitment to sustainable forestry, Forest Guardians helped raise $35,000 to buy firewood-processing equipment. Like many good ideas for economic betterment in northern New Mexico, it failed. The equipment needed for a sustainable forest economy stands rusting and unused. Instead, the community has set its sights on reviving the old-growth-dependent mill left by the retreating multinational.

As in much of the West, this is a perilous time in northern New Mexico, where the temptation to continue on the road to further environmental decline stands against the more uncertain path leading toward sustainability.

Today, few locals notice a new silence in the woods as over 40 species of snag-nesting songbirds decline, victims of firewood poachers and past ill-conceived fire-prevention programs that cut thousands of standing dead "lightning" trees. Fewer still associate regular spruce budworm outbreaks that defoliate whole mountainsides with a lack of insect-eating birds. The spray programs that dumped more than a million pounds of insecticides, mostly DDT, on New Mexico's forest, most likely wouldn't have been needed if adequate nesting trees had been left standing.

Conservationists and traditional Hispanos may not see the woods through the same eyes, but I believe we share a deeply held vision of the land. For now, though, the wise-use message of hate is easier to hear.

Sam Hitt is president of Forest Guardians, a grassroots conservation group based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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