Land grants are inextricably woven into the fabric of northern New Mexico, where heirs trace their lineage to the Spanish foot soldiers, Indigenous cautivos (slaves), people of mixed descent and Pueblo peoples who settled the edges of a colonial empire.
The forests saw a lot in the intervening years, including ongoing protests over how the U.S. Forest Service exercised its power. Tensions rose so high that armed dissidents stormed the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse in 1966, an incident that so surprised the USFS that the agency launched a study to investigate.
“The hard facts are that many of the villagers’ understanding of Forest Service management objectives, regulations, and policies is harshly at odds with their own concept of how things should be,” the report concluded. Mistrust, it went on, was the greatest obstacle.
Critics today still see the agency’s relationship with locals as shaky and, like the forest, in need of mending.
“Unhealthy forests look like the USFS almost everywhere,” said Joaquin Arguello, a vocal proponent of collaborative forest thinning initiatives, alongside his father, David Arguello.
David is a member of the Cerro Negro Forest Council, which manages a community thinning project in the Carson National Forest that is based on the tenets of acequia stewardship. Until there is more community forestry, Joaquin argued, “it all looks unhealthy because there is no bond with the land.”
Santa Fe National Forest has made progress along these lines, including recent efforts like the Southwest Jemez Mountains Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project and a similar project in the Rio Chama area. But the region where the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire has been most destructive hasn’t seen thinning on a large enough scale, in part because of USFS budget cuts, experts said.
Thinning wouldn’t necessarily stop a fire from starting or spreading, said Matthew Hurteau, professor of ecology at University of New Mexico – especially with 70-mile-per-hour wind gusts, drought, climate change and lack of snowpack. But if practiced full throttle, it could lessen the fire’s most devastating impacts.
Given all the troubles, one local USFS employee predicted 10 years ago that a major conflagration would occur in the area where fires have now been on a two-month rampage.
“It’s not if, but when we get a large wildfire in the Gallinas canyon,” Steve Romero, U.S. Forest Service ranger for the Pecos/Las Vegas district, said in 2012, on a tour of the Gallinas watershed.
“We anticipate it could be catastrophic.”
Alicia Inez Guzmán, Searchlight New Mexico