Recent Wildfires, Historical Mistrust and the FS in New Mexico

This story, developed by Searchlight New Mexico can be found in Rolling Stone and the Guardian US among other outlets.

It touches upon the history of the land grants of New Mexico, as well as issues of how the Forest Service works with local people, and indeed the role of local people in managing federal forests.

In today’s fire zone, the descendants of the dispossessed are among the Forest Service’s sharpest critics. They are joined in their distress by villagers, small-scale farmers, loggers, foragers of traditional food and medicine, Indigenous peoples and acequia parciantes, caretakers of the age-old irrigation ditches now compromised by flames. The USFS has fallen short of its commitment to the land and those who live alongside it, they say.

As the conflagration whips through public and private lands – as of 6 June, burning nearly 500 sq miles – anger, frustration and grief define the tenor at public forums, in evacuation centers and on social media. Some locals say that, if given the chance, they would have practiced far more sustainable forest thinning in partnership with the USFS, thereby lessening the impacts of a catastrophic fire. Others criticize the way fire crews heavily relied on backburning, a fire-suppression tactic that involves starting smaller fires to deprive a larger wildfire of fuel.

And yet, is it also possible that some ENGO’s, perhaps with a mesic-against-corporate-logging mentality, were partially responsible for these policies (thinning is really logging in disguise, etc.) To what extent are these folks recolonized by the Coastal view of how forests “should be” managed? Does our current “policies based on litigation” system disenfranchise some voices?

The forests belong to the people, as San Miguel county commissioner Janice Varela puts it.

“We locals, we feel like, hell yes, it’s our forest,” says Varela, a longtime water activist. “Yeah, we let the forest service manage it and we let everybody in the world come here, but it’s our forest. We have ownership from our proximity to it, from our history and cultural connection to it, from our heart.”

If we feel sympathy with those folks, would we equally feel sympathy with folks from “red” counties in other States? Is it because of their party affiliation (we all know that R’s are Bundys-waiting-to-happen) or because of their historical claims? And of course, what historical claims do we think are valid, and on what basis? And how does this fit with the concept of “environmental justice”?


There are concerns about the use of backburning..

Back-burning, however, has caused the greatest enmity. To fight ferocious blazes, wildland firefighters are trained to set small back fires to burn grasses and other tinder, starving the larger blaze of fuel.

In Mora, back-burns were set without private property lines in mind, says Patrick Griego, the owner of a small logging business who stayed behind to protect his property. He saw several of his neighbors’ lands get back-burned and, determined to save his 400 acres (162 hectares) from a similar fate, cut an extensive fire line with his grader. The wildfire was still distant, he says. To his shock, wildland firefighters appeared one night and back-burned a swath of his property anyway. He recalls watching, seething and feeling helpless, as they set his land on fire. The flames shot 30 feet high in places. Forty acres (16 hectares) were gone in 15 minutes, he says.

“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say.” He calls the people who set the back-burn “arsonists”.

More history…

The ever-present past

Recovering from the fire will depend to a certain extent on extinguishing pain from the past. And the past can seem omnipresent in northern New Mexico.

Over the past 60 years, intense conflicts have erupted over how the USFS has managed the forests, limiting people’s ability to graze livestock, hunt for food and repair acequia headwaters. Some of the protests are still talked about.

In 1966, land-grant activists occupied part of the Carson national forest, declaring that the land had been appropriated; a year later, they carried out an infamous armed raid on the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse, attempting to win the release of fellow activists.

Even a casual conversation in the fire zone can suddenly pivot to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which promised – and failed – to protect the rights of land-grantees and allow them to keep their commons.

Today, almost one-quarter of the Carson and Santa Fe national forests are made up of former land-grant commons. In other parts of the state – in a district of the Cibola national forest, for example – a staggering 60% is made up of these commons, research shows.

A woman kneels on the ground next to a hole in a scorched forest, raising an arm in the direction of the root tunnels leading away from it.
Pola Lopez sits by a hole where a ponderosa pine was burned to ash by the fires. Lopez says she is most brokenhearted by the loss of the old-growth ‘grandfather trees’. Photograph: Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico

The forest service has taken local needs into account, spokesperson Overton wrote in an email. For example, people with permits are allowed to cut firewood in designated areas, she notes. Many employees of the Santa Fe national forest are members of the community, she adds. “They grew up here, they have the same ties to community and cultural heritage as their neighbors.”

But today, this offers little comfort. Pola Lopez can still remember how her father, the late state senator Junio Lopez, made it his life’s mission to reunite the dispossessed with their land. He was unable to produce wide-scale change, however, and the purchase of the 157 acres (64 hectares) now blackened by the fire was a kind of consolation prize. That land, his daughter says, “became his sanctuary”.

In 2009, Pola had the property designated a conservation easement, to protect the forest from development for what she thought was perpetuity.

Now, the willows and scrubby oak are razed and the stream that once flooded the banks of the canyon are completely desiccated. But Lopez is most brokenhearted by the loss of the old-growth forest, the “grandfather trees”, as she calls them. Some were scorched so badly that only holes full of ash remain.

9 thoughts on “Recent Wildfires, Historical Mistrust and the FS in New Mexico”

  1. When I first transferred to the Carson NF in the mid 90’s from Oregon, I was informed of the unwritten “Northern New Mexico Policy” that the FS operated under locally. Free firewood & “latillas” (up to 30′ lengths of tree trunks for structure construction) for locals, very lax inforcement of grazing boundaries as well as quantities of livestock, lack of permits for most Forest uses etc. In many ways it seemed like moving to a third world country, it took me a few years to be accepted by and understand the local cultures that dated back hundreds of years (Pueblo & Hispanic) and their way of doing things, but it was essential if you wanted to get anything done.
    My experience on IMTs in the past was that permission was always sought on other ownership lands for “Back Burns” to make sure everyone was on board with this process, what has happened to change that?

    • It’s the wildfire industrial complex and the “heroification” of firefighters – especially federal firefighters. It’s a classic issue in Oregon and Washington too when backburns burn up fences on private land and generally do not recognize the private land owners. On the 2020 Riverside Fire in Oregon the FS was ready to let the Riverside and Lionshead fires burn together – and that would have burned a lot of private land – there was a “tactical pause” instigated by the State (their objective is to protect private land and state land) and the two fires were not allowed to burn together.

  2. It’s too bad this has to be broken down along ethnic identity lines (such is the idiocy of our age I guess). It’s a shame, because I’ve heard the same from rural folks of all different ethnicities: the FS is disconnected in it’s management approach. First it was the sustained yield industrial practices of the 60s to the 90s, and now it is the hands off, only enter to fight fire approach.

    I’m sure there’s a million excuses within the agency for this, but there will always be a disconnect as long as those who manage the land are dictated by policies from Washington.

  3. Policies based on litigation does in fact disenfranchise some voices. I’ve seen this happen to recreation access. Most of the time, traditional access succumbs to ENGO influenced pressure and policies. Still happening with every plan revision. I’m not surprised this disconnect results in a lack of trust.

  4. This reminds me of elections in Montana which make much out of who has lived here the longest, which somehow means they have more of a right to be in charge. It makes some sense to distinguish those who have been here “from time immemorial,” but not among the different degrees of colonists (though historical intermixing of the two may make that impractical here). Legal instruments like treaties would be relevant to treatment of specific parties, but beyond that, it’s a fool’s errand to try to manage a national resource this way.

    I don’t know anything about the law of firefighting, but are backburns any different from the damage firefighters might cause fighting structure fires?

  5. This article is sad for several reasons. The social and cultural impacts of the fires are so heartbreaking; there’s no recovery for that. It’s also sad that the standard narrative continues to portray the relationship between the USFS and communities as a one way street. The Service has made so many mistakes over the years, but the public – local communities and especially recreationists – still refuses to acknowledge its role it in exacerbating degraded forest conditions. We’ve supported fire suppression, have overgrazed, littered, left campfires burning, ridden ATVs wherever, and we’ve stood by as the Service gets underfunded year after year.
    Firewood harvest wouldn’t have kept us out of this mess, and we know it. Overgrazing as deliberate fire reduction has been practiced for decades; we know that’s a problem too.
    We have our whipping boy for now, but until we get honest with our narrative, we’re going to have these kinds of tragedies more and more often, and no one to blame but ourselves.

  6. 50 local plaintiffs have filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking:
    “Plans and modifications to plans authorizing the prescribed burn that led to the Hermits Peak Fire.
    Agreements or contracts with third parties who assisted in carrying out the prescribed burn.
    Rules, regulations, “statutes or other documents” that govern the prescribed burn.”

  7. Here’s a little different example of “the role of local people in managing federal forests” (pursuant to legitimate legal authority). (The focus is on how this is being affected by climate change.)

    “The Apsáalooke tribe still has legal access to cut lodgepoles for cultural purposes from several U.S. Forest Service-designated harvest sites across the region through the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty, and passed into law by the 2008 Farm Bill. A 2019 lawsuit by a Crow tribal member further opened up more areas to harvest.”


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