The Future of the Commons, Part III: Imagining a Future New Mexico without the Forest Service

The Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit in black outline; shaded areas indicate portions of the Carson National Forest. Author’s map.


[EDITOR’S NOTE: In Part II of this series, David Correia explained the paternalism of the Forest Service in relation to a neo-Malthusian pessimism regarding the management of common property resources: a pessimism theorized by Garrett Hardin and challenged by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, as Correia discusses in Part I. In this final section, Correia discerns a future for the commons in the struggles of northern New Mexico communities to restore their social and ecological relationship with the forest.]

The Forest Service won’t control millions of acres in northern New Mexico forever. It just seems that way.

For nearly one hundred years, the USFS has claimed authority over what were once Spanish and Mexican land grants and, before that, territory relied upon by Utes, Navajos, Comanches, and Apaches. Even prior to the arrival of the Spanish, northern New Mexico was the location of a constantly shifting struggle over territorial control. In other words, transformations in land use and territorial control are not colonial inventions.

Dramatic and violent geopolitical shifts over territorial authority are the rule, not the exception, in northern New Mexico.

Political and economic transformations, therefore, are certain to eventually drive the federal government from the business of land management in northern New Mexico.

This is not a future that everyone anticipates equally. Environmentalists I have talked to over the years have steadfastly rejected proposals to devolve land management authority in northern New Mexico from the federal government to various local communities or land grants. Their objections are many, but most important among them are fears that the change in authority will come with reduced access for non-grant members.

This question of access by non-grant members partly explains the contentious debate among land grant activists regarding grant membership. One camp holds fast to the idea that, regardless of current property ownership within the historic boundaries of various Spanish and Mexican land grants, only the blood heirs of original Spanish or Mexican settlers can today make a legitimate claim to membership, and therefore property. Others, however, note that in nearly every community land grant in New Mexico, original settlers occasionally sold their private claims within the grant. These land sales transferred not only private land to a new owner, but also rights to the commons.

What exactly is a commons and how is a commons to be managed are political questions at the heart of the long struggle between forest dependent communities in northern New Mexico and the USFS.

While Forest Service management has been depicted by apologists as consistent with the historical management of resources in New Mexico (people still cut wood, graze their cattle, etc.), in practice it has been a much different kind of commons.

The development of Forest Service authority and management owes its form, in large part, to the work of its first Chief, Gifford Pinchot, a man with an abiding faith in technological progress, the state, the forest as commercial resource, and in the ability of professional foresters, unburdened by market imperatives, to manage natural resources most efficiently.

William B. Greeley. Third chief of the USFS. Source: USFS

The conservation movement within the USFS, however, was far from monolithic. Although Pinchot was a faithful believer in commercial uses of forest resources, he was suspicious of commercial interests. William Greeley, however, the third Chief of the USFS, placed his faith in industry regarding forest management. Under Greeley’s leadership, the USFS made itself into an appendage of industry. Timber policies were rewritten to be more conducive to industry needs and away from Pinchot’s focus on strict regulatory authority.

Greeley’s preoccupation with forests as reservoirs of resources for industrial timber extraction found its fullest expression in the practices of sustained yield timber production in northern New Mexico.

In the late 1940s the USFS created the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit in the forest around Vallecitos, Petaca, Las Tablas and La Madera. The Unit was based on Greeley’s Sustained Yield Forest Management Act of 1944. The law was imagined as a way to transform the forests into plantations for a more efficient timber industry. The ‘‘[c]ommercial incentive is beginning to cut the Gordian Knot,” explained Greeley. “The industrial quest for the cheapest source of raw material that formerly led to the timber mine is already turning to the timber crop.’’

The law allowed the Forest Service to set aside huge swaths of public lands and turn them over to private firms. It was a law pushed by a timber lobby unable to resolve the contradictions of industrial timber productions. Throughout the interwar years, fly-by-night operators clear-cut entire forests in the U.S. west in a pattern that created unpredictable price fluctuations and threatened the profitability of large timber operators. Those large timber operators lusted after the huge federal forests and saw in them a way out of their economic problems.

The Forest Service was more than happy to oblige.

The history of the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit (VFSYU) on the Carson National Forest is one of constant conflict among local residents, commercial timber operators (particularly Duke City Lumber) and the USFS. Despite the language in the law about “community stability” the point of the law was to give industry monopoly control of forest resources. The give-away to commercial firms came with specific hiring numbers and standards that Duke City, in particular, never followed. Efforts among workers to unionize were met with strikebreaking tactics by both industry and the Forest Service.

By mid-1980s local residents and workers had had enough of the lousy wages, dangerous working conditions, damaging clear-cuts and constant demands by industry to increase harvest levels.

Ike DeVargas working in the woods. Photo by Eric Shultz

A coalition emerged among local workers, residents and land grant activists under the name the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Association. During the 1985 forest planning process, the Forest Service proposed a doubling in the size of Duke City’s harvest. The Association opposed it. ‘‘Increased logging and more roads will cause long-term ecological damage to the forest,” argued the Association President, “reduce the sustained yield of the Unit, harm wildlife and adversely affect [livestock] permittees.’’

More pointedly, the Association claimed that the Unit was not the vehicle for “community stability” the Forest Service promised but rather had become a form of “Economic Terrorism.’’

In the face of Association organizing and activism, the USFS capitulated. The proposed harvest was reduced and a small portion of timber was promised to a locally owned timber operation called La Compañía.

La Compañía, however, rarely received the promised cuts and by 1992, facing bankruptcy, argued for a comprehensive transformation in the way the USFS managed the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit. It’s useful to examine the 1992 proposal for the way it imagines the forest as a locally managed commons sensitive to ecological processes and local economic needs.

Ike DeVargas, one of the principals in La Compañía, developed the plan as the President of the Association. In it he suggested expanding the purpose of the Unit beyond sawtimber to also include ‘‘wood fiber products, mineral products, wildlife, fisheries, grazing uses and recreations uses.’’ He included language that required the Forest Service, despite being exempt from state and local property taxes, to give ‘‘to the communities in the Unit 25% of its revenues derived from the Unit to provide general support for schools and roads.’’ They asked for the establishment of a special entitlement fund to establish ‘‘curricula in the fields of forestry and forestry-related skills, business administration, and agricultural sciences for schools serving the unit.’’

VFSYU Association changes included language that would have had the Forest Service and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department admit that its policies had ‘‘resulted in the establishment of a non-native elk population that competes for forage with livestock that have traditionally been important to the local economy of the Unit.’’ The Association suggested two alternatives in dealing with the elk problem. Either the Forest Service could collect ‘‘a grazing fee for each head of elk’’ equal to what is charged to livestock permittees, or the Forest Service could retain 25% of hunting and fishing revenue for restoration, herd management and the protection of existing livestock permits in the unit.

The Association sought support for water and sewer systems, playgrounds and parks for communities in the Unit. They proposed a training requirement to insure that a homegrown cadre of local leaders could emerge. They sought a minimum wage for forest workers. And they asked, once again, for a reduction, rather than an increase in the annual sustained yield of saw timber form the forest. Read the proposal here: vfsyu_9_0392-1193_doc802.

For reasons that are obvious, given the commercial focus of Forest Service management, local rangers ignored the proposal.

The plan, however, remains a vital document (and potential starting point) for a future without the Forest Service. It’s worth reading for its redefinition of the commons as one managed by the requirements of nature and society (not the market) and its focus on meeting the needs of local communities and ecologies.


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