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Right-of-way battle ’30 years in the making’

LA BAJADA – Residents of this tiny village and surrounding Cochiti Pueblo are at odds as the two sides discuss land and water access issues that the pueblo says have been put off for more than three decades.

On one side of the fence, literally, are about 40 residents of La Bajada in unincorporated Santa Fe County. There’s now a fence between them and their water supply: an irrigation reservoir, ditch and spring in a Santa Fe River canyon, accessible only through Cochiti Pueblo land. A road that skirts the village also now hits a dead end.

La Bajada residents say they and their ancestors moved freely through the area for nearly 300 years. Between August and October last year, the pueblo began fencing off land that includes the water supply.

A road on Cochiti Pueblo land that runs along the Santa Fe River near the village of La Bajada has been closed by the pueblo. Residents of La Bajada, who say they have legal right of way to the land, put up their own signs past the pueblo fence. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A Cochiti official says the barriers were needed to prevent damage from hikers or others using pueblo territory to get to public land in the nearby Santa Fe National Forest. More than one fence was erected directly in front of the water system.

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La Bajada resident Alonzo Gallegos says that while the pueblo granted temporary permission to pass through the fence to the reservoir in March, that isn’t enough.

The villagers maintain their access is protected by a federal law under which Cochiti acquired the land in 1984 and which says the pueblo should not “deprive any individual or entity of any legal existing right of way” or legal water rights.

Gallegos says public historic areas have been cut off, as well, among them parts of Camino Real from Mexico City and pieces of the original Route 66 highway climbing the landmark La Bajada hill above the village.

Cochiti Pueblo environmental director Jacob Pecos says no public areas have been blocked off – those lands can still be accessed through Forest Service land uphill from the village.

He says La Bajada’s water supply was developed before the pueblo acquired the land in 1984 via congressional action. According to Pecos, there is no legal documentation proving La Bajada has a legal right of way through pueblo land.

“The issue has been over the last 30 years, (the land) had been used inappropriately in a lot of ways,” Pecos said. “It was treated as their property when it isn’t.”

The two parties are at least talking about how the villagers can get to their water supply. On Saturday, La Bajada’s village committee is hosting a public meeting to discuss what Darrin Muenzberg, the committee chairman, says is an offer from the pueblo for two years of access to the water sources. The two sides also have been in joint meetings with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs since March.

Grazing permits expired

Over the past three decades, Pecos said, Cochiti did not fence its property because it was honoring three grazing permits granted before Congress passed the land to the pueblo.

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After those permits recently lapsed, Cochiti decided to fence the land to prevent further damage the pueblo maintains the property sustained over the years. He suspects damage and litter came from non-Native hikers and tourists.

Pecos said there was a hiker who would walk through pueblo land with a hammer and pound a specific boulder because it made a “bell-like” sound. The rock had significant petroglyphs that the tribe wants to preserve and the hammer did obvious damage. “For some, it’s recreation,” Pecos said. “For us, it’s a way of life.”

Many people, he said, didn’t realize they were trespassing because of the lack of “well-marked” boundaries. Now, the tribe wants to ensure security for future generations.

“It should have gone up 30 years ago,” he said of the fencing. “If the public looked at (the fencing as) abrupt, it was 30 years in making.”

Darrin Muenzberg opens a gate to an easement for the acequia for La Bajada. Access to the area has been fenced off by Cochiti Pueblo put the peublo allows La Bajada residents to tend to their water needs. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Both Gallegos and eighth-generation La Bajada resident Muenzberg say there was no prior warning about the fences going up, which Cochiti denies. Muenzberg said that while there may be a need to block access to problem visitors, locals deserve some level of controlled access. Instead, he said the tribe wants him and his neighbors to “beg” for permission to get to the water.

The dispute is now evident in dueling signs posted around the village.

The fences are posted with no trespassing notices. But about two weeks after the fences went up in October, La Bajada residents put up their own “right of way” signs just past the fencing in order to mark what they view as their territory. Muenzberg said the community members have been asked to remove the signs, but refused.

“What they’re failing to recognize is we’ve used this land without interruption for 300 years,” he said.

Pecos said his pueblo’s dealings with La Bajada isn’t the major problem – the real concern is getting information out to the greater public about why the pueblo land and its resources need protection.

The idea that Cochiti barred complete access to the original Route 66 road or ways to get to popular hiking areas in La Bajada Mesa is a misconception, he said, because those areas can be accessed from U.S. Forest Service land east and north of the village. A road from the Airport Road area on Santa Fe’s southwestern outskirts, County Road 56C, provides access to national forest land.

USFS: No public land blocked

The old road bed from where Route 66 or N.M. Highway 1 came up La Bajada. Access to the area from the south is now cut off by Cochiti Pueblo fences. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Forest Service spokeswoman Julie Anne Overton said no federal land has been blocked and the Forest Service has not received any complaints about not being able to access trails. Muenzberg, however, said he has encountered disgruntled people passing through the village who reach a new dead end on a road outside the village. The main paved road to La Bajada, Tetilla Peak Road off N.M. 16 – which runs off an Interstate 25 exit – remains open.

Muenzberg accused Cochiti of using high-powered attorneys as a form of intimidation to get the village to back down. But Pecos said he wants to remedy the situation and find a fair solution.

The only thing the parties seemed to agree on was how La Bajada community supported Cochiti Pueblo as it was acquiring the land in the 1980s.

Reflecting on their amicable past, Muenzberg described the recent tension as a “disgrace,” something his parents or grandparents never experienced. To him, the situation is an attempt to take advantage of the small community because of the false idea that it’s a ghost town, where older residents are dying off and younger ones are leaving.

“They misjudged the community,” he said. “… There’s men, women, dogs and a lifestyle here. We’re still around.”


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