Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Residents of rural San Miguel County are upset that a road that has long been used to access Santa Fe National Forest has been chained off by a couple from California who purchased land adjacent to Dead Horse Ranch about 2½ years ago.
Locals in the area north of the Villanueva exit off Interstate 25 say the road that starts off as County Road B55 has been used for generations to travel into the forest to go hunting, horseback riding, piñon nut picking and to gather firewood. Nearly 300 people signed a petition protesting the gate.
Meleah Hosea says she and her husband Jordan just want to keep the “riff raff” out so they can live in the peace and quiet their picturesque 77 acres has to offer – a place where they can ride horses, garden, live out their golden years and that can be enjoyed by their children and grandchildren.
But she said that won’t be the case as long as people drive up the road to do drugs, dump garbage, and illegally hunt and cut firewood on their property.
Hosea says she has found used hypodermic needles in the creek that runs through the couple’s land and that she constantly has to haul out dumped trash, tires and furniture. “I don’t care if they’ve lived here 150 years, it doesn’t give them entitlement,” she said of her neighbors. “The people who have been using that road are the people who have been coming up here and dumping trash. We’re not here to block people off, but the bottom line is it’s a private road, and that’s the end of the story.”
Not for other residents of the area, including another pair of newcomers who in October bought their own 68-acre tract just south of the Hoseas’ land as a place where they could live out their retirement years.
“When we bought this property, one of the amenities was access to the forest,” said Tony Hackebeil, from Texas, adding that he and his wife Brenda wanted to ride horses up into the national forest.
He says the title they were issued includes an exception that says a part of their property is burdened by an easement that extends from the interstate frontage road to the national forest.
Hackebeil says his first encounter with the Hoseas before he and his wife bought their property was friendly. Brenda Hackebeil, whose son operates a Santa Fe horseback riding business, talked to the Hoseas about using the road to take kids with cancer on horseback rides into the forest and the Hoseas were open to the idea, Tony Hackebeil said. Phone numbers were exchanged and everything seemed simpatico, he said.
But soon after the Hackebeils bought their property, Tony texted Jordan Hosea to let him know they would be using the road to drive into the national forest. He received a text back from Jordan that said “Gate is up.” After a few more text exchanges, Jordan cut off communication altogether, saying he was doing so under the advice of his attorney, Hackebeil said.
Hackebeil, a former assistant district attorney in San Antonio, says the conflict could lead to litigation.
He says local residents could regain access to the road through what’s called “easement by prescription,” which, according to realestatelawyers.com, in New Mexico “may be established upon a showing of open, uninterrupted, peaceable, notorious, adverse use, under claim of right, that has continued for a period of ten years.”
Similar issues have been raised elsewhere in New Mexico. In the White Peak area, litigation over historic public use of roads on what’s now private land has played out for years.
Pursuing a lawsuit was one option discussed at a community meeting in Ribera about a month ago.
Hackebeil says he thinks locals want him to lead the charge, but he’s not licensed to practice law in New Mexico. Still, he wants to help any way he can.
“Yes, I want to have access to the forest,” he said. “But I think it’s important that locals have access, too, because they have for a hundred years … .This issue is not going away.”
County won’t join fight
San Miguel County’s interim Public Works Director Arnold Lopez says he’s heard about the dispute, but there’s nothing the county can do about it.
“There have been a lot of unhappy people about them blocking an easement that they’ve used historically. I’ve had a lot of people ask about it, but it’s beyond our jurisdiction,” he said.
The road in dispute goes from a public county road to a private road and then to a public forest road in the Santa Fe National Forest, according to Lopez and the U.S. Forest Service.
Lopez said that County Road B55 begins at the I-25 frontage road and extends north for 1.32 miles. Beyond that point, “that road is considered a private road,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest said the forest doesn’t have jurisdiction over the gate either because it’s on the portion of the road that’s on private land. The road becomes a designated Forest Service road farther north when it reaches the national forest boundary, she said.
Spokeswoman Julie Anne Overton said the forest road is used for legal firewood gathering and hunting. There haven’t been problems with illegal dumping on Forest Service land, but Pecos/Las Vegas District Ranger Steve Romero has heard about it happening on private land off the portion of the roadway that is a county road.
Overton said that Romero has talked to Meleah Hosea about the gate, telling her that it “would likely not be popular” with local residents.
Jack Skinner, who manages the Dead Horse Ranch – adjacent to both the Hoseas’ land and the Hackebeils’ property – said the private portion of road is owned by owners of land along the road and, beyond the Hosea’s property, it becomes an internal ranch road that has been used – and abused – by the public for a long time. He said people cut the ranch fence to cut firewood and have dumped trash, tires, furniture and even a swing set on ranch property.
Skinner said the ranch didn’t have anything to do with putting up the gate, which required erecting a post on the ranch side of the road easement, “but I don’t object to it.”
Skinner said the feds eradicated a marijuana plantation in the nearby Santa Fe National Forest a few years ago. A Santa Fe New Mexican article from 2014 tells of a grow operation that consisted of about 700 plants and says that pot farmers would use ATVs to access the forest via County Road B55.
Skinner referred further questions to Santa Fe attorney Charles Thompson Jr., who did not return phone messages from the Journal last week. Meleah Hosea also urged the Journal to talk to Thompson, adding that she and Skinner had the law and a “high-powered attorney in Santa Fe” on their side.
‘Wild wild West’
While no one likes to go to court, litigation could be the best way to resolve the dispute, which has become contentious.
An unknown disgruntled local resident apparently took matters into his/her own hands after the Hoseas erected a couple of posts and stretched a chain across the road. A few weeks later, the chain was cut and someone left them a note that simply said, “(expletive) you.”
Meleah said that after the Las Vegas Optic ran a story about the dispute in December, someone threatened to burn the Hoseas’ house down, kill them and dump their bodies in the river.
“Wow, really? Over a gate? Over a road that you people never use? Just because it’s always been there?” Meleah said.
“These people don’t give a (expletive) who they drop into the Pecos River. I live in the wild, wild West. San Miguel County is like that. It’s not like Santa Fe or Albuquerque. I live on the outskirts.”
Locals say it’s the Hoseas who created the problem and blame Meleah for escalating tensions.
“Meleah pulled a 9 mm on me when I was driving up that road in September and chased me down the road,” said Bill Schueller, who lives nearby. Schueller said Meleah didn’t recognize his truck and settled down after realizing it was him. Hosea denies she has ever pointed a gun at anyone.
The first time he met the Hoseas, Schueller said, they couldn’t have been nicer, and they invited him to stay for dinner. “They are great people; they are just doing something that is not very nice,” he said. “There’s never been a gate there, ever, until Jordan and Meleah bought that land. They just want to block off the road so they can hoard the area for themselves.”
Schueller said he has talked to Meleah at least three times about “the perspective of New Mexicans” regarding the gate. “It’s still the wild, wild West out here,” he said. “I didn’t threaten them, but I told them there are people out here who wouldn’t stand for it.”
Doesn’t point gun
Meleah Hosea acknowledged she sometimes carries a gun while hiking or riding horses on the property. She said she does it for protection against mountain lions, bears or the riff raff she might encounter. But she denies ever pointing it at anyone. “I would never do such a thing,” she said.
While the Hoseas moved to New Mexico from San Luis Obispo, California, Meleah said her family is from Hobbs and has been coming to the area since the 1940s.
“It’s not like I’ve never been to New Mexico,” she said. “I’ve been coming here for 55 years and this is where I want to retire.”
She insists she didn’t bring a “California attitude” with her. She said it’s the “machismo attitude” of some of her neighbors that has created the problem. “I want to feel safe here. I don’t want to leave our land,” she said. “I’m not going to be bullied off our land, and we have been bullied here.”
Meleah said she and her husband didn’t want to put up the gate, but continually having to deal with the mischief that other people bring changed their minds.
“If people weren’t doing that, there never would have been a gate put up,” she said, adding that she considers herself a steward of the land. “But I’m not here to clean up other people’s trash.”
The Hoseas used to give out keys to the lock on the gate to some neighbors so they could pass through at will, but no more.
“We’re done with that,” she said.
Now there are signs posted that warn that the road is closed to through traffic and that the area is under surveillance.
Before the Hoseas moved there, area residents say they used the road all the time.
“That road has been a thoroughfare my entire lifetime, and I’m 63 years old,” said Alex Perea, who runs the Alto Bar, off the interstate in nearby San Jose. “It’s a sad thing to see, all these people who used to get wood up there and go hunt not being able to go up into the forest that way.”
Mark Rivera was one of them.
“Now, for us, we have to go all the way to Pecos,” he said.
Schueller said he used to go up that road to hunt turkey, elk and deer since the 1990s.
“That’s one of the reasons I bought the property was to go hunting up there. It only took 45 minutes to get there,” he said. “The other way is 25 miles one way. It doubles the mileage and triples the time.”
Schueller said the road closure isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s a safety issue.
“There could be a survival situation,” he said, for people trying get out of the national forest. “If you have to go back all the way through Pecos, you’re in deep doo-doo.”
Santa Fe National Forest personnel say there are other roads people can use to access the forest from the south. One way is through Pecos and there’s another way through San José on a bad road, locals say.
Michael Kauffman, who describes himself as a “recovering attorney” and current real estate broker, said he was the one who started the petition drive against the road closure. He said he collected 292 signatures, “which is a lot of people for a small community like this.”
He sent copies of the petition to practically every government official he could think of – the Forest Service, the county manager, county commissioners, his state representative and the district attorney.
“I got no response from anyone. No one wanted … the responsibility of taking it on,” he said.
He’s worried that the dispute could lead to further confrontations.
“I know there were folks that wanted to take matters into their own hands at the beginning. People were getting frustrated about it, and understandably so,” he said. “It’s essentially prohibiting people from the general usage of something that has been used for many, many generations.”
Christopher Thomson, a renowned metal sculptor, and his wife Susan live about a mile down the road from the gate and signed the petition against it.
“When we moved here 40 years ago, I was very moved by the connection people have had with the land,” Christopher said. “They dug acequias, we’d watch them drive up that road to cut firewood and collect piñon. It seems this long, wonderful tradition of connection with the land is being cut off, and it’s a shame.
“When our kids were really young, we took them up there to wade and swim in Mortandad Creek and to the old Priest mica mine. We don’t have the long generation-after-generation relationship that other people do, but we’d still like to see that road opened.”
“It’s been so neighborly all these years, it’s unfortunate,” added Susan, who said she likes the Hoseas and understands their frustrations about people coming onto their property for nefarious reasons.
“It would be nice if it gets resolved peacefully.”