Hispanics flex some environmental muscle

 

The 1906 Antiquities Act, which grants the president unilateral authority to protect broad swaths of land as monuments, has long stirred controversy in the West, where we don’t like the feds overstepping. The 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated by Bill Clinton in 1996, is still a sore point because Utah’s congressmen and governor were given only 24-hours notice; it also blocked a proposed coalmine. Neighboring counties were still fighting its management plan in federal court in 2009.

But in New Mexico this April, the politics were surprisingly different as President Obama designated a monument called Río Grande del Norte. Its 240,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land stretch north of Taos to Colorado and encompass sweeping sage plateaus, 10,000-foot-high mountains and the most dramatic stretch of the Río Grande Gorge.

At a celebration in Taos, ranchers, Hispanic land-grant heirs and Taos Pueblo tribal officials rubbed shoulders with environmentalists and outdoor recreationists. Rather than decry presidential meddling, members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation touted how it would boost tourism and thereby create nearly 300 jobs and $15 million in annual revenue.

Why was Río Grande Del Norte so different? The effort to create it started out like any other environmental campaign, and it could have easily floundered in the divisive dynamics of outside groups pushing an agenda without community involvement. But here, the campaign was driven by local Hispanic leaders -- from bottom to top.

“The proudest moments of my conservation career have been coalition meetings for the Río Grande del Norte, because they truly reflected the multicultural and multiethnic nature of the community,” says Michael Casaus, New Mexico director for The Wilderness Society.

But that representation was not true in the ‘90s, when, in a state with a majority Hispanic population, you could count the number of professional Hispanics in the conservation movement on one hand, sometimes on one finger. At the time, many rural Hispanics felt that white, mainstream environmental groups had done little for their communities but restrict access to public land and resources. It was a period of notorious flashpoints between the “brown and the green.”

So when then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D, held meetings on the Río Grande Del Norte in 2007 to prepare a bill for 2009, Esther García, current mayor of the village of Questa next door to the monument, emerged as one of its staunchest opponents. Garcia and her constituents worried it would hamper their cattle grazing and firewood and piñon-nut gathering, which date back to the 1700s.

“We called Washington and told them that without the land grants, it was a no-go,” says the 67-year old.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance then began helping Bingaman’s office with precedent-setting provisions that recognized land grant rights under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, required that grantees be consulted on management decisions and protected traditional land uses. Even so, Garcia’s trust proved elusive until the organization tapped John Olivas, a Mora hunting and fishing guide who studied environmental science, to be its traditional community organizer in 2008.

“If the movement didn’t happen within the Hispanic leadership, it wasn’t going to happen” in northern New Mexico, Olivas says. “Esther and I spoke the same language.” Garcia’s brother, who holds a grazing permit on the monument land, along with the Board of Trustees of the local land grant, slowly came on board; other traditional community members followed.

“It took a lot of pots of posole,” says Roberta Salazar of the local conservation group Rivers and Birds, who took up the cause in 2008, followed soon after by New Mexico Wildlife Federation’s Max Trujillo.

Meanwhile, The Wilderness Society’s Casaus connected the growing local coalition with national resources and expertise. Last year, García and local grazing permittee Erminio Martinez testified in Washington, D.C., in support of federal protection. Rafting guide Cisco Guevara became a vocal spokesman. Bingaman staffer Jorge Silva-Bañuelos provided critical support; Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar became the monument’s champion.

“Hispanics have always been conservationists,” says Garcia, and they have finally begun to take their rightful place in the conservation community. In fact, numerous recent polls show that Hispanics more strongly support conservation than Anglos. That may be because low-income communities of color often live closer to polluting industries and power plants, explains Javier Sierra, Sierra Club bilingual media strategist, but Hispanics also care about land and water as part of “profound religious values.”

So it was that García, opponent at the outset, ended up in the Oval Office for the formal signing ceremony. “It was,” she says beaming, “a dream come to reality.”

Ernie Atencio is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a longtime environmental organizer and writer in his native New Mexico.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • RANCH HAND & HOUSING OPPORTUNITY IN DURANGO, CO
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....