Contested Landscape: “Wilderness” or “Commons”?


Map showing proposed Pecos Wilderness expansion in yellow (click to enlarge). Courtesy of the Wilderness Alliance of New Mexico.

Any meeting in northern New Mexico where land grant heirs, acequia parciantes, and conservationists meet to talk about wilderness is a recipe for heated and obfuscated talk at each other, but it’s also a great opportunity to bash the Forest Service. Perceived as the colonial heir of stolen lands by both the land grant and acequia communities, and the purveyor of resources to special interests by the conservationists, the United States Forest Service embodies the institutional dysfunction that everyone loves to hate. For norteños in particular, the agency functions with the “dual forks of the snake’s tongue” (Salomon Martinez in Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico, Jake Kosek, 2006) as it legitimizes itself with both paternalistic management and bureaucratic authority.

No one from the USFS was at the meeting on June 16 in Vadito (just north of Peñasco) to discuss the Wilderness Alliance of New Mexico’s proposal to expand the Pecos Wilderness to include 130,000 acres of roadless area on all its boundary sides, but the elephant was definitely in the room. How could it not be? Any change in land status will come under its management, even if the idea of expanding the wilderness is being floated by the Alliance and brought to the affected communities without direct agency input. If the Alliance is successful in eliciting community support the proposal will be pursued legislatively.

The context of the discussion about wilderness at the Vadito meeting was framed by a concept named back in the 1990s, at the height of the battles between the Forest Service, environmentalists, and the communities over access to local resources: the nature of el norte’s “inhabited wilderness.” Most of what is now Carson National Forest was, of course, originally inhabited by native people and then deeded as Spanish and Mexican land grants, whose settlers utilized the land for its timber, water, and grazing resources, i.e,, an inhabited wilderness of sorts, where they lived in village communities on small private properties adjacent to these vast commons. The idea of wilderness, an area “untrammeled by man”, is an alien concept to the folks who witnessed the loss of these lands to the chicanery of the adjudication process, the exploits of Anglo and elite Hispano business interests, and finally, the federal government in the form of the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

At the meeting Vincent Abeyta, the land grant representative for the Santa Barbara Land Grant, who is also a commissioner of his acequia association, invoked this inhabited wilderness concept and stated that the grant had voted to oppose the proposed expansion: “The Forest Service hasn’t protected our grant up to now so we don’t think they’d do any better with this.” Lloyd Bolander, the founder of Sipapu Ski Area, challenged Abeyta: “What would the land grant do if it becomes private property? Are you going to log it? How are you going to pay taxes on it?” The land grant representative responded: “We will continue to run it for the community.” The owners of Sipapu Ski Area, which sits between State Highway 518 and the roadless area on the north side of the Pecos Wilderness, also oppose the wilderness expansion, which is not surprising, considering their opposition to the roadless classification made during the early 2000s, their commercial interests in ATV use, and their longtime plans to expand the ski area. John Olivas, the Wilderness Alliance representative at the meeting, told me in a later phone call that the Alliance had already responded to the Sipapu expansion plan by adjusting the proposed boundary of its wilderness expansion to accommodate the ski area’s plans.

Sipapu is one of the few extant commercial interests in the area; most of the economic uses tied to the Carson have revolved around community forestry, grazing, and farming. In expressing his opposition to the expansion of the wilderness area, Abeyta was careful to delineate what kinds of uses the grant deems appropriate for the contested land: only the traditional uses stated above, as opposed to mining, oil and gas development, and large scale timbering.

In an interesting reversal of roles, however, Olivas, a Mora County Commissioner who lives in Holman, and Arturo Sandoval, a longtime community organizer whose family is from Chacon, villages on the Mora land grant, presented their ideas for economic development that included the concept of wilderness. In his pitch to the group Olivas raised the specter of a congressional threat to “do away with public lands” as the movement towards privatization gains purchase. His reasoning, that a wilderness designation would make this privatization more difficult, once again reveals the disconnect between the USFS and locals: while we bemoan the dysfunctional and often damaging management practices the agency has employed for more than a century in northern New Mexico we continue to look to it for protection from forces even more invidious: privatization and capitalism.

Sandoval raised the capitalism specter in his pitch for wilderness status: “We want to see lands turned into wilderness that protects us from capitalism turning everything into a profit.” His definition of wilderness doesn’t quite conform to the notion of “untrammeled by man,” however. He sees the kinds of economic development his organization, Cooperative Development Center of New Mexico, as a means of putting humans back in the landscape by taking advantage of the wilderness designation. He began his presentation to the group by saying, “While I’m sympathetic to the land grant movement I’m interested in moving forward. As land grant heirs we need to learn to adapt.” He presented three programs already under development by the Cooperative:

1)   Organic agriculture cooperatives that provide a return on investment much higher than the current predominant alfalfa and hay crops, which will utilize drip irrigation and coordinated planting. Cooperatives have already been set up in Truchas and Pecos.

2)    Ecotourism—or “cultural” tourism—that capitalizes on our already thriving tourist industry that focuses on outdoor services by training locals as guides for wilderness activities such as hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, etc.

3)   Affordable housing based on multi-family dwellings built around traditional plazas.

There wasn’t much discussion of Sandoval’s ideas by the rest of the group and the conversation again devolved into a pro and con argument over the meaning and usefulness of wilderness and the Forest Service’s inability to manage the forest. Several alternative designations for the roadless areas were suggested—Conservation Area or Primitive Area, but folks were unfamiliar with exactly what those terms mean. In our phone conversation Olivas explained that a Conservation Area, a designation used by the BLM, and Primitive non-Mechanized, a USFS classification, would prevent mining and oil and gas drilling. I also asked Olivas if the other communities affected by the proposed expansion, on the east, south, and west sides of the Pecos, were more receptive to the idea, and he said “the majority are on board.”

Tanya Leherissey, a local mayordoma, tried to sum up the feelings of many of those at the meeting: “Our people are a local resource that the Forest Service doesn’t utilize, and doesn’t work with in partnership. . . . This is not a yes/no situation. We have to determine what we want.”



  1. This post has me hooked, so that I am here instead of getting ready for work, i.e., picking apricots with morning temperatures. Thanks for fleshing this issue out and for sharing the discussion at the meeting. Alliance’s expansion ideas for Sandia Wilderness were not inclusive of the SJ de Las Huertas Land Grant’s needs to take bulldozer in to work on the spring. The Wilderness Act needs some clauses like the Mining Act needs erasing.
    -Cirrelda in Albuquerque

  2. Wilderness as a concept is decidedly separate from wilderness the reality.
    It has been argued again and again, most persuasively by the late Ed Abbey, that wilderness provides a necessary counterpoint, and tonic to society, a balance, and that to be deprived of wilderness impoverishes society as a whole.
    Certainly wilderness is no longer the great expanse of wonderful nature it was as late as the 19th century. Today it is largely dependent upon human society to value wilderness enough to preserve it.
    It is somewhat disingenuous to assert that wilderness was not, in bygone eras, simply because people lived there! The conditions of life then were so radically different as to make the comparison strained-at best.
    Humanity itself must decide if it wishes to continue on, or commit species wide suicide. This is essentially the debate today that no one has the courage to host. I won’t waste reader’s time citing all the conditions that have lead to this epiphany, but the stark reality is that humanity can no longer afford to dilly along with diversions and stupidity if it wants to survive.
    I would have liked to attend the conference, and test for myself if people there had the mettle to grasp this essential question, and to define exactly what it does mean to survive into the future as a species.
    We are at a time when government and business are failing humanity, and what is required is for humanity to brainstorm new options and put them to use. We must use our talents, and develop our skills, or we will die, victims of our own success.

  3. Arturo Sandoval’s ideas remind me of the ideas presented by Peter Van Dresser in his book, A Landscape For Humans (1973?). Also am reminded of La Montañita Coop’s foodshed project :, “Cooperative Distribution Center” – that is linking many producers in a 500 mile radius from the Rio Grande Rift.

    Appreciated Michael Kadisak’s comment. Sandoval’s and La Montañita’s actions are practical responses. Other efforts with lasting effects include citizen wildlife data monitoring by Sandoval County’s Pathways

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