The Future of the Commons, Part II: The Origins of United States Forest Service Paternalism in Northern New Mexico


[EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of this series examined the politics of population and the racist and paternalist presumptions of neo-Malthusian zero population growth arguments. It ended with a quote from David Harvey, who noted that coercive population policies are not the green policies they pretend to be but rather are policies designed to reinforce the power and authority of elites at the expense of the poor. This essay examines the paternalist origins and racist practices of the United States Forest Service in New Mexico. After documenting the history of Forest Service management of the commons in New Mexico, part III next week will take up the struggles over the commons in New Mexico in the wake of more than 100 years of Forest Service (mis)management.]

Santa Barbara Tie & Pole Company floating timber in 1923. Photo by W.J. Perry. Source: USFS

The United States Forest Service manages five national forests in New Mexico with a total land area of nearly 10 million acres. Central New Mexico’s Cibola National Forest includes more than 1.5 million acres. The southern New Mexico Lincoln NF is the smallest in the state at just over 1 million acres. The Gila NF is the state’s largest at around 3.3 million acres. The Carson and Santa Fe National Forests in northern New Mexico comprise 3.1 million acres stretching south of Santa Fe to north of Taos and west nearly to Farmington.

Nearly all of the 3.1 million acres that comprise the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests were former common lands of Spanish and Mexican land grants either rejected by U.S. adjudicators or courts in the nineteenth century or acquired by speculators.

The Carson National Forest was established as a 946,480-acre reserve on 1 July 1908. The forest was made up of former land grant land that speculators had acquired but had been unable to mine, lumber, or graze profitably. Grants such as the Petaca and Vallectio de Lovato, among others, made up the original boundaries of the forest.

Over the next fifty years the Carson would expand by more than 50 percent to its present size of 1.5 million acres. Between 1927 and 1961, that expansion occurred through the purchase of more than 250,000 acres in nine land grants. It acquired the 21,000-acre Las Trampas grant in 1927 in a land swap with the George Breece lumber company. In 1932 it acquired nearly 25,000 acres of the Santa Barbara grant from the Santa Barbara Tie & Pole Company.

Current extent of the Carson National Forest. Source: USFS

Irene and Frank Kimball sold the 10,000-acre Sebastián Martin grant to the Carson in 1935. Failed lumber man William S. Jackson sold the Forest Service 65,000 acres of the northern portion of the Juan Jose Lobato grant in 1943. Two years later, in 1945, the Carson expanded again when it swapped land with the Federal Land and Development Corporation in order to acquire nearly 8,000 acres of the F.M. Vigil grant. The Leroux grant became part of the Carson in 1950 when William Ed Harris conveyed 18,000 acres of it to the USFS. The Carson expanded twice in 1954 when the USFS acquired 8,000 acres of the Arroyo Hondo grant from George Evans and 1,200 acres of the Maxwell grant from George Siemantel. The largest, and last, acquisition came in 1961 when the estate of Ralph Rounds conveyed more than 90,000 acres of the Rio Grande grant to the Carson.

The Santa Fe National Forest was established seven years after the Carson on 1 July 1915 as a 1.3 million acre forest comprised of rejected land grants such as the San Joaquin del Rio de Chama, the land grant at the center of the Alianza Echo Amphitheater occupation in 1966.

The forest expanded to its current size of more than 1.7 million acres thorough the acquisition of the Ojo de San Jose, Gabaldon, southern portion of the Juan Jose Lobato, Polvadera, La Majada, Caja del Rio, Anton Chico, one of the Baca location ranches, and San Diego.

The creation of both forests was not motivated by conservation but rather was a huge bail-out to the failed lumbermen and commercial grazing operators who couldn’t make a profit from the vast acreages they acquired in northern New Mexico.

The expansions were part of a paternalistic Forest Service plan to transform the subsistence economy of northern New Mexico. The plan was based on two key presumptions. First, it was assumed by the Forest Service that the forests of northern New Mexico were overgrazed and this overgrazing was caused by smallholder sheepherders. Second, the USFS assumed that commercial exploitation of the forest, particularly commercial timber extraction, was the solution to the perceived ecological and economic problems of subsistence production in the region.

The Neo-Malthusian Politics of Overgrazing in Northern New Mexico

There was overgrazing in New Mexico in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but rangeland depletion was not caused by land grant communities’ household grazing practices but rather by commercial cattle ranchers. The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in southern New Mexico in the late nineteenth century precipitated a boom in ranching and ranching investments throughout the arid Southwest. In New Mexico and Arizona, large commercial-ranching operators took advantage of new transportation networks to exploit open ranges—and to manipulate land policies to fraudulently acquire million of acres.

The 1.6 million sheep grazing in New Mexico in 1870 increased to 5.2 million by 1883, an increase that had a huge impact of grazing resources in the territory. Between 1870 and 1890, New Mexico range-cattle numbers increased from fewer than 200,000 to more than 1.3 million. The commercialization of forest pastures in northern New Mexico squeezed out small-scale, land grant ranchers.

The consequences of the shift to commercial ranching had environmental effects as well as social ones. Severe drought further stressed overstocked ranges in the early 1890s and led to massive rangeland degradation in New Mexico and Arizona as commercial ranchers left cattle on depleted ranges.

For commercial ranchers, praying for rain became a more sensible act than accepting an economic loss by removing herds from ranges. Drought or no drought, finance capital demanded a return on its investment. As Nathan Sayre noted in his book Ranching, Endangered Species and Urbanization in the Southwest, “[range] conditions were highly variable and subject to periods of drought, which could dramatically reduce the amount of feed available for stock. As an input in the accumulation of capital, however, the grasses were a link in a much larger financial system that demanded regular, reliable returns, regardless of interannual variations in forage.”

After the drought of the 1890s, range numbers declined across the Southwest, but by the 1920s commercial herd sizes had returned to, and in some places exceeded, pre-drought numbers. In New Mexico, cattle numbers reached 1.9 million head and sheep herds exceeded 2 million.

In the early 1940s, like a generation earlier, severe drought starved thirsty grasslands throughout New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The drought lasted well into the late 1950s and forced the USFS, now the dominant land manager in the US Southwest, to address the problem of depleted ranges. Range managers began looking for the culprits of overgrazing. That they chose poorly designed social science methods to analyze range use instead of ecological analysis (even today permittees on the Carson complain of the windshield surveys the range conservationists use to evaluate ranges on the Carson: a staffer drives up to a pasture and “looks out the window.” Such is the state of USFS “science.”) says something about the state of range science during the period. What rangers were looking for was poverty, not overgrazed ranges, because they assumed that where there is poverty, there’s overgrazing.

This faith in commercial ranching related to the range managers’ obsession with “modern” practices. Forest Service grazing policies were based on early range-science models that contributed to the view that commercial production provided superior productivity to household production, and that capital-intensive methods of range improvement supporting commercial production mitigated the environmental impacts of livestock grazing. In New Mexico, the Forest Service’s preoccupation with science and industry was reinforced by a widely held view among USFS rangers that regional poverty and ecological degradation was a function of Hispano cultural traits. This neo-Malthusian view assumed (always passed off as fact) that non-commercial use of common resources always resulted in the eventual overexploitation of resources. Without any evidence, either historical, empirical or even anecdotal, rangers concluded that overgrazing was always the outcome of  common-property resource use and this pattern was inherent to land grant production patterns.

The result was a powerful institutional focus not only on restricting land grant grazing but in transforming the economy of northern New Mexico.

Paternalistic Management

The Forest Service focused its efforts in the 1940s on transforming the household economy of northern New Mexico into one organized around commercial timber extraction. Timber for commercial extraction was, after all, the sole purpose of the Forest Service when it was established.

The development of Forest Service authority and management owes its form, in large part, to the work of its first Chief, Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot was a faithful believer in commercial uses of forest resources, but he was suspicious of the ability of commercial interests to manage scarce resources. William Greeley, the third Chief of the USFS, placed his faith in industry regarding forest management. In a 1925 article discussing the economic obstacles to commercial forestry, Greeley suggested that “[i]t is written in the immutable laws of commerce that industries seek their cheapest source of raw materials. Timber stored up in nature’s reservoirs is cheap, while timber produced by man’s labor and patience is dear… the last stage in an evolutionary process in which the supply of timber is shifted from a temporary and exhaustible source to a permanent and sustaining one—from the timber mine to the timber crop.” For Greeley timber was the “logical function’’ of the USFS, and market-based incentives offered a path to ‘‘timber culture.”

Transfer site for local lumbermen in 1923 in the Jemez. Photo by W.J. Perry. Source: USFS

Whereas Pinchot sought strict timber harvest limits and controls, Greeley proposed environmental regulations that focused instead on reshaping the social relations of production among timber operators, labor, and the communities dependent on forest resources so as to benefit the interests of the forest products industry.

Greeley laid the groundwork for forest planners in New Mexico to rationalize new restrictions on non-commercial activities on the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests. Administrators and local foresters, as they always have in northern New Mexico, relied on paternalistic diagnoses of cultural and ethnic backwardness among Hispano communities to explain almost everything they perceived as wrong in the region: overgrazing, poverty and local opposition to federal authority. One of the earliest policy documents proposing to transform the subsistence economy of the region was the 1935 Forest Service report titled, “A Dependency study of Northern New Mexico.”

Authored by Roger Morris, a Forest Service grazing assistant, the report claimed that “[Hispanos] are sedentary in character living in the present and with no thought for the future. They accept conditions as they are and make the best of them with no idea of conserving the natural resources much less enhancement of them. They would remain in place to the point of extinction by starvation and disease before they would migrate.”

It was a study Malthus, and surely Garrett Hardin, would have loved for its poorly designed social science methodology and its focus on the perceived poverty of local people as proof somehow of their inability to manage scarce resources. The study relied on surveys of local economic conditions by the Soil and Water Conservation Service in order to argue that the Forest Service should limit local resource use to an annual subsistence income for local Hispano families. As Morris reasoned in the report, “It is noted… that the diet… is exceedingly plain, and the clothing supply very meager, and also that there has been no provision for medical attention. It is thus felt that the indicated income figure of $426.25 can very well be raised to an even $500.00.” What this had to do with the state of forest ranges only Morris knew.

He suggested, in a non sequitur that only he and the USFS missed, that grazing resources could not accommodate pending population pressures. For this reason he suggested that “submarginal cases will not, as a result, be encouraged by the Forest Service to continue in a situation where they will patently never have a chance to become independent.” Without any ecological study of local range conditions, Morris recommended sweeping grazing reductions throughout northern New Mexico so that forest rangers could turn the forest over to commercial timber operators “in an effort to induce them to give first consideration in the matter of employment to the local dependent population.”

The Morris report was the basis for sweeping transformations to commons management in northern New Mexico. The Forest Service would go on to manage the former land grant commons in northern New Mexico as a commons for commercial exploitation until, in the late 1980s, a local challenge to USFS mismanagement emerged. Next week, in part III, I examine the rise of a resistance movement to USFS management–and USFS efforts to quash it.


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