This story has been corrected to say that a wilderness designation on U.S. Forest Service land doesn’t ban pre-existing grazing operations, although some new restrictions would apply.
TIERRA AMARILLA – Long before the standoff in Bunkerville, Nev., in 2014 over grazing on federal land and the occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Harney County, Ore., earlier this year, there was the raid on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse.
On June 5, 1967, the Alianza Federal de Mercedes – which translates to Federal Land Grant Alliance and became known simply as La Alianza – led by Reies Lopez Tijerina stormed the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla with the intention of freeing nearly a dozen members of their group who had been arrested two days earlier and to make a citizens’ arrest of prosecuting District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez.
The two-hour confrontation resulted in a prison guard being shot through the cheek and a sheriff’s deputy severely beaten. It ended when the 20 or so raiders escaped with two hostages.
The famous raid was inspired in part by ill will between the land grant activists and the U.S. Forest Service. And, nearly 50 years later, relations between the Forest Service and Hispanic landowners in parts of northern New Mexico remain a tinderbox.
“There is no trust of the Forest Service. There have been too many wrongs,” said Moises Morales, who was Tijerina’s body guard at the time of the courthouse raid.
Now, as Rio Arriba County clerk, Morales’ county office is in that same Tierra Amarilla courthouse, which still bears some of the bullet holes from the 1967 shootout. And his feelings haven’t changed.
“They stole 32 million acres of land without the approval of Congress with the flick of a pen,” he said of what he maintains was the U.S. government’s systematic acquisition of property begun by President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration – property granted to Spanish settlers of the Southwest by the king of Spain hundreds of years before there was an America. “We have a right to this land.”
The latest iteration of this ancient dispute involves a Forest Service process to rewrite its management plan for the entire Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, a lengthy document that takes four to five years to develop and dictates how the forest service administers the Carson’s 1.3 million acres. The federal government requires new management plans every 10 to 15 years, but the Carson is still running on a plan written in 1986.
And part of the rewrite process involves whether to designate more areas as wilderness – which could put the land off-limits to land-grant heirs’ traditional uses, although existing grazing operations could remain with certain restrictions.
“They spend more time behind closed doors trying to figure out ways to get us off the land,” Morales said of the Forest Service. “Once they get us off the mountain, then we won’t be able to do anything.”
Morales isn’t saying there’s going to be another raid in Tierra Amarilla, another standoff like Bunkerville or an occupation like occurred in Oregon. But he’s not ruling it out, either.
“I see danger,” he said. “There are people here just hanging on to the crumbs that the government has left them. If they lose it all and can’t feed their families, there could be a big blowout.”
By some accounts, tensions flared again about 10 days ago when the Forest Service hosted a community meeting in Abiquiu meant to get public input on revisions to the Carson National Forest plan and the wilderness designation process within that plan. Some witnesses say the Forest Service lost control of the meeting and the crowd of more than 100 people were nearly enticed into violence.
Carson National Forest Supervisor James Duran says that’s not an accurate representation, though he did acknowledge that the presentation that was planned that night was not completed.
“We’re not there to control anybody,” said Duran, who characterized the meeting as positive.
“We were there to have a conversation,” he said. “There were a lot of questions about wilderness and land management, and people shared their experiences. That was valuable to us … . It’s important that we listen to the people that we serve and understand their needs, and this was an opportunity to engage in conversation.”
Duran said many people came up to him after the meeting, and thanked him for listening and answering questions. Some of them invited him back to complete the presentation, he said.
Audrey Kuykendall, planning staff officer for Carson National Forest, was also at the meeting. “There was a lot of passion in that room and James was responding to a passionate audience,” she said. “There were 116 people there. It went very well for having that many people in a closed space.”
David Sanchez, vice president of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association, disagreed with the Forest Service’s account of what happened.
“What I saw was fear in their eyes. What I saw was anger,” he said of some of the people in attendance. “Because they know the history and they know how folks have lost their rights to resources. They know what has happened here historically with federal agencies and they feel that this is a next step in removing them off the land.”
A smaller meeting on April 8 in Taos attended by a reporter was calm, as Kuykendall addressed the possibility of expanded wilderness areas with an air of caution.
“The Carson is our backyards. We have 54 communities within the forest boundary, that’s more than any other forest in the nation. We are a community forest,” said Kuykendall. “Right now, we are here to talk about wilderness, but I want to emphasise that wilderness is a small piece of the entire plan.”
Land-grant activists aren’t the only ones concerned. “I just want to make sure nothing else gets taken away,” said Susan Hogrefe, vice president of the Red River Chamber of Commerce, at the Taos meeting.
She said off-roading and ATVing, two activities that are not allowed in wilderness areas, are some of Red River’s biggest tourist attractions. The town of Red River is less than a mile from the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Area, created by Congress in 2014.
Planners are now in the second stage of the wilderness recommendation process. The first stage was completed in February when planners created an inventory of all of the roadless areas in the forest. The roadless areas were then divided into over a hundred individual parcels, which are now being assessed for their wilderness qualities in a second stage of the years-long process.
“A lot of people think we have made up our minds, that’s just not the case,” said Kevin Naranjo, a Forest Service planner at the Taos gathering.
Another meeting on the forest plan will be held tonight in Peñasco, where residents also have been trying to fight off a proposal by environmentalists to have more land in the nearby Santa Fe National Forest designated as wilderness.
Civil rights issues
Sanchez frames the fight over the land as a struggle for minority rights. A Forest Service survey from 2014 shows 56 percent of stakeholders, such as grazing permittees, in the Carson forest are Hispanic or Latino and another 7 percent are American Indian. That’s a significantly higher percentage of minorities than most of the forest districts in Colorado and New Mexico covered by the survey.
Sanchez doesn’t want to see racial violence erupt, or another uprising like happened here in 1967.
“It’s a different time and people want to address these issues formally, and we have,” he said, adding that dozens of letters have been written and that he’s made seven trips to Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue, most recently to speak before the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and House Agriculture Committee. “We want to address things formally and peacefully to make sure these folks aren’t left out.”
Sanchez said U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grishman of New Mexico, both members of the Hispanic Caucus, have been supportive. In a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack from October, the two House members reminded the secretary of a 2014 Civil Rights of Compliance Review that found Forest Service regions in both New Mexico and Colorado in non-compliance with civil rights requirements. Among the reviews findings was that the agency was inconsistent in implementing policies and procedures, including those that deal with people who speak limited English.
“Farming and ranching are rich traditions in Hispanic communities across the United States but, unfortunately, too many are still battling discrimination,” they wrote. “Many of these farmers tend to be older, with limited English and no email addresses, and have been patiently waiting for the USDA to right a wrong from years ago.”
In a statement this week to the Journal, Rep. Luján added, “I share the Stockmen’s concerns with the troubling fact that the Forest Service in New Mexico was found to be non-compliant with civil rights requirements and that regulations were being inconsistently implemented.
“This threatens the livelihood of Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers in northern New Mexico, so Rep. Lujan Grisham and I arranged for Mr. Sanchez to brief members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and encouraged our (Hispanic caucus) colleagues to express our concerns in a letter and meeting with Secretary Vilsack. We have requested further information from the USDA regarding their practices, and continue our efforts to hold the agency accountable to ensure that Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers are treated fairly.”
Rio Arriba County Planning and Zoning Director Lucia Sanchez also expressed concerns about the Forest Service’s handling of a public information meeting in January regarding the Carson’s preliminary inventory maps. There were no maps, no draft inventory of potential wilderness areas and no discussion of how far along they were in the process, she wrote. “Many of us left confused and disappointed with the content of the meeting,” she wrote.
Sanchez, who says he’d rather fight the Forest Service with a pen than a gun, said the stockman’s association has put the Forest Service on notice that it will file a civil rights complaint if the agency doesn’t meet its demands for more technical assistance – including dealing with language barriers during the Forest Service meetings – and for peer review of the science relied on for developing the forest plan and wilderness designations.
“Our intent now is, within 180 days, to file another civil rights complaint,” he said. “The federal law says they ‘shall’ bring in a team of experts to peer review this stuff, whether it’s at the national planning level or now at the Carson National Forest plan revision,” he said.
Kuykendall says peer review will come, but they aren’t at that point in the process yet.
“We have a working group of cooperating agencies, and we would say we are doing that and having those agencies look at that,” she said. “All of the comments we will take forward into analysis, which we haven’t gotten to yet. But there will definitely be an opportunity for that to occur.”
The good news is that the groups are talking. A meeting is planned for Monday between Forest Service officials and the Stockman’s group.
Finding common ground may be difficult. Over the years, a land-grant activists’ sign proclaiming “Tierra O Muerte” (Land or Death) has stood along U.S. 84, the road into Tierra Amarilla. Not far away, another roadway sign marks the boundary of the federally controlled Carson forest, with the familiar tag line “Land of Many Uses.”
Sanchez said he hopes an understanding can be reached before matters really do get out of control.
“Nobody wants to see violence and nobody wants to lose one of their neighbors because they get arrested for some federal act. We don’t want to see a good citizen from Canjilon or El Rito fall victim to the Forest Service process and he becomes a federal criminal,” he said.
“I think that’s what happened in Oregon, I think that’s what happened in Nevada – the agencies came in as they did here, and they push people and push people, and you can only go so far back before you hit a wall.
“Then it becomes that you are creating the problem. If something happens, you can’t just blame it on the people, it’s the agency that has created the problem.”
Freelance reporter Lester Black contributed to this story.